A new artificial intelligence tool has the attention of educators, but local schools want to harness the technology, not ban it
In certain circles, Chat GPT — an artificial intelligence bot — has been vilified as a harbinger of education’s doom.
Some of the country’s largest school systems, including districts in New York City and Los Angeles, have blocked access to the technology out of fear it could enable widespread cheating among the students.
North Shore administrators don’t see it that way.
Peter Tragos, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at New Trier High School, said Chat GPT is just the latest technology to worry educators. But like calculators, the internet, social media and Wikipedia before it, Chat GPT and other artificial intelligence platforms are here to stay.
“It is powerful and has the potential to change learning and education, but it’s not the end of education, not the end of high school English,” Tragos said. “Like it or hate it, we have to learn to live with it — smartly and wisely.”
He added, “Being able to harness (new technologies) is really important rather than having an immediate response. … That doesn’t prepare students for the future they will live and work in.”
Chat GPT was released in late November 2022 by OpenAI, which describes it as a model that interacts with users in a “conversational way” following a question or prompt. For instance, a user can ask Chat GPT about the connection between the Great Depression and “The Grapes of Wrath,” it will scour data from across the internet and swiftly provide a grammar-strong response of four paragraphs and 200 words.
The more a user interacts with Chat GPT, the more the user can learn how the technology works, receiving more unique information and reducing the risk of plagiarism getting detected.
The concern for many teachers — described in detail in a Dec. 28 Washington Post article that circulated in and out of educators’ inboxes — is students will use Chat GPT’s responses verbatim in school assignments, which would constitute plagiarism as well as a breach of integrity codes at schools like New Trier and Wilmette Public Schools District 39.
Of course, it’s not that simple for students or educators.
Since information on the internet is not always credible, Chat GPT’s responses are not always credible. The responses also have proven to be relatively formulaic, meaning they fail to match a student’s writing style and they often have detectable tendencies.
New Trier junior Kate Dieffenbacher, a reporter for the New Trier News, bylined a Feb. 3 article about cheating concerns at the high school, including the emergence of Chat GPT.
She said according to her research New Trier students and teachers are looking at the technology differently. Dieffenbacher said students see Chat GPT as a resource that can help them in their schoolwork, but she did not come across one student who had used it to complete assignments.
New Trier teachers, though, see it as a threat, she said — not just because of the cheating opportunities, but also because students may not realize the information Chat GPT produces could be inaccurate.
It didn’t, however, take Dieffenbacher long to figure out that last part. She said she prompted Chat GPT with a physics problem, and its answer was wrong.
“Students don’t realize — yes, it can give you a lot of information and it seems like it can be helpful and explain things and give you a better grasp of any type of material — the detrimental effect of using it,” Dieffenbacher said. “It could come off as plagiarizing work” and “isn’t exactly all accurate.”
That’s why local administrators — like Tragos at New Trier and Tony DeMonte, administrator for technology, information and safety for Wilmette D39 — are preaching education of Chat GPT, instead of disassociation.
For its staffers, New Trier hosted on Jan. 30 a webinar with Dr. Torrey Trust, a professor of technology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who focuses on where education meets technology.
The high school’s board of education also requested more information on Chat GPT, which Tragos provided at the February meeting.
Wilmette District 39, which serves pre-K through eighth-grade students, is also working on giving its teachers guidance, DeMonte said, with the underlying principle of safe usage.
“I do think this needs a heavy dose of education,” DeMonte said. “We’re not taking the stance of banning or blocking, which by the way never works. … It’s always, always, always teaching safe and responsible use, because kids are not always within our sights. Our goal is to teach them so when we’re not around they are making wise choices.”
Both Tragos and DeMonte said they are not aware of any student turning in an assignment plagiarized from Chat GPT responses. Both also said that doesn’t mean it has not happened.
Since news broke of teachers’ concerns about Chat GPT, multiple plagiarism detectors, such as TurnItIn.com, have been released. They claim to be able to identify tendencies from Chat GPT and other artificial intelligence.
Tragos, though, is not interested in going down that path. He said advancements in technology are released every day and to try and stop students from using them is unproductive and cuts against New Trier’s educational foundation.
“We don’t want to get into the business of using technology like TurnItIn.com. It undermines learning, and it assumes every student author or writer has plagiarized something,” he said. “You create a barrier to the teacher-student relationship and learning. If we begin from the assumption that everybody is cheating, we’ve kind of lost our way in learning.”
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Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319