Teachers are talking about a new artificial intelligence tool called ChatGPT — with dread about its potential to help students cheat, and with anticipation over how it might change education as we know it.
On Nov. 30, research lab OpenAI released the free AI tool ChatGPT, a conversational language model that lets users type questions — “What is the Civil War?” or “Who was Leonardo da Vinci?” — and receive articulate, sophisticated and human-like responses in seconds. Ask it to solve complex math equations and it spits out the answer, sometimes with step-by-step explanations for how it got there.
According to a fact sheet sent to TODAY.com by OpenAI, ChatGPT can answer follow-up questions, correct false information, contextualize information and even acknowledge its own mistakes.
Some educators worry that students will use ChatGPT to get away with cheating more easily — especially when it comes to the five-paragraph essays assigned in middle and high school and the formulaic papers assigned in college courses. Compared with traditional cheating in which information is plagiarized by being copied directly or pasted together from other work, ChatGPT pulls content from all corners of the internet to form brand new answers that aren't derived from one specific source, or even cited.
Therefore, if you paste a ChatGPT-generated essay into the internet, you likely won't find it word-for-word anywhere else. This has many teachers spooked — even as OpenAI is trying to reassure educators.
"We don’t want ChatGPT to be used for misleading purposes in schools or anywhere else, so we’re already developing mitigations to help anyone identify text generated by that system," an OpenAI spokesperson tells TODAY.com "We look forward to working with educators on useful solutions, and other ways to help teachers and students benefit from artificial intelligence."
Still, #TeacherTok is weighing in about potential consequences in the classroom.
"So the robots are here and they’re going to be doing our students' homework,” educator Dan Lewer said in a TikTok video. “Great! As if teachers needed something else to be worried about.”
“If you’re a teacher, you need to know about this new (tool) that students can use to cheat in your class,” educational consultant Tyler Tarver said on TikTok.
“Kids can just tell it what they want it to do: Write a 500-word essay on ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,’” Tarver said. “This thing just starts writing it, and it looks legit.”
Taking steps to prevent cheating
ChatGPT is already being prohibited at some K-12 schools and colleges.
On Jan. 4, the New York City Department of Education restricted ChatGPT on school networks and devices "due to concerns about negative impacts on student learning, and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content," Jenna Lyle, a department spokesperson, tells TODAY.com. "While the tool may be able to provide quick and easy answers to questions, it does not build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success."
A student who attends Lawrence University in Wisconsin tells TODAY.com that one of her professors warned students, both verbally and in a class syllabus, not to use artificial intelligence like ChatGPT to write papers or risk receiving a zero score.
And last month, a student at Furman University in South Carolina got caught using ChatGPT to complete a 1,200-word take-home exam on the 18th century philosopher David Hume.
“The essay confidently and thoroughly described Hume’s views on the paradox of horror in (ways) that were thoroughly wrong,” Darren Hick, an assistant professor of philosophy, explained in a Dec. 15 Facebook post. “It did say some true things about Hume, and it knew what the paradox of horror was, but it was just bullsh--ting after that.”
Hick tells TODAY.com that traditional cheating signs — for example, sudden shifts in a person’s writing style — weren’t apparent in the student’s essay.
To confirm his suspicions, Hick says he ran passages from the essay through a separate OpenAI detector, which indicated the writing was AI-generated. Hick then did the same thing with essays from other students. That time around, the detector suggested that the essays had been written by human beings.
Eventually, Hick met with the student, who confessed to using ChatGPT. She received a failing grade for the class and faces further disciplinary action.
“I give this student credit for being updated on new technology,” says Hick. “Unfortunately, in their case, so am I.”
Getting at the heart of teaching
OpenAI acknowledges that its ChatGPT tool is capable of providing false or harmful answers. OpenAI Chief Executive Officer Sam Altman tweeted that ChatGPT is meant for “fun creative inspiration” and that “it’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now.”
Kendall Hartley, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, notes that ChatGPT is "blowing up fast," presenting new challenges for detection software like iThenticate and TurnItIn, which teachers use to cross-reference student work to material published online.
Still, even with all the concerns being raised, many educators say they are hopeful about ChatGPT's potential in the classroom.
"I'm excited by how it could support assessment or students with learning disabilities or those who are English language learners," Lisa M. Harrison, a former seventh grade math teacher and a board of trustee for the Association for Middle Level Education, tells TODAY.com. Harrison speculates that ChatGPT could support all sorts of students with special needs by supplementing skills they haven’t yet mastered.
Harrison suggests workarounds to cheating through coursework that requires additional citations or verbal components. She says personalized assignments — such as asking students to apply a world event to their own personal experiences — could deter the use of AI.
Educators also could try embracing the technology, she says.
"Students could write essays comparing their work to what's produced by ChatGPT or learn about AI," says Harrison.
Tiffany Wycoff, a former elementary and high school principal who is now the chief operating officer of the professional development company Learning Innovation Catalyst (LINC), says AI offers great potential in education.
“Art instructors can use image-based AI generators to (produce) characters or scenes that inspire projects," Wycoff tells TODAY.com. "P.E. coaches could design fitness or sports curriculums, and teachers can discuss systemic biases in writing.”
Wycoff went straight to the source, asking ChatGPT, "How will generative AI affect teaching and learning in classrooms?" and published a lengthy answer on her company's blog.
According to ChatGPT's answer, AI can give student feedback in real time, create interactive educational content (videos, simulations and more), and create customized learning materials based on individual student needs.
The heart of teaching, however, can't be replaced by bots.
"When you think about the amazing teachers you’ve had, it’s likely because they connected with you as a student," Wycoff says. "That won’t change with the introduction of AI."
Tarver agrees, telling TODAY.com, "If a student is struggling and then suddenly gets a 98 (on a test), teachers will know."
"And if students can go in and type answers in ChatGPT," he adds, "we're asking the wrong questions.”