Saturday, April 08, 2023

To ChatGPT or not to ChatGPT? That is the question

I've managed to avoid talking about ChatGPT in this blog (apart from a brief, and quite recent, foray into the phenomenon of people falling in love with their chatboxes). This is not for any good reason; it's really just that I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

I've never actually used ChatGPT myself; maybe I'll get around to it one day, it's not high up on my list of priorities. But I understand that it is a really big deal in any number of areas, not least in the area of education, which is where most of the articles I have read tend to focus. Bear in mind that ChatGPT has only been around since November 2022, just six short months. But many educators are understandably throwing up their hands in horror, denouncing it as a free essay-writing test-taking tool that makes it laughably easy to cheat on assignments.

Several major school districts and universities have already banned the app, but what does that actually mean in practice? Even if a student can't just copy-and-paste a ChatGPT answer, it would be nigh on impossible to stop people from writing out an AI-generated answer long-hand. And because ChatGPT can answer the same question in an almost infinite number of different ways, it is not at all easy to spot a ChatGPT answer to a specific question.

Clearly, using ChatGPT to answer a question does not develop a student's problem-solving and critical thinking facilities (although, arguably, the ability to use ChatGPT is a valuable skill in itself). Is it cheating, though? Maybe, maybe not? And shouldn't kids today be learning how to make use of all available resources (including AI)? Over half of American teachers and nearly a third of students have already used ChatGPT at some stage, and the vast majority of both say it was a positive experience.

The more positive members of the education community (I'm guessing mainly those with a more academic, rather than practical, interest in the field) are already saying that maybe the arrival of ChatGPT is a blessing in disguise for education, and that AI could even make education better. For example, an assignment could be something like: use ChatGPT to generate an answer to a question, and then annotate and criticize that answer, or point out any flaws (because even ChatGPT is not foolproof). Sure that would be cool, and it might help some students get past that "blank page syndrome". But is that how assignments have to be now?

That seems a stretch, and more than a little pie-in -the-sky, to me. It's all very well for some ivory-tower education policy experts to wax lyrical about the opportunities ChatGPT is offering education. But most everyday teachers are already overstretched and underpaid, and the last thing they need is to have to develop a whole new way of teaching. Many are more concerned with stopping their students from killing each other, and maybe helping a few to achieve some useful qualifications along the way. Hell, not all kids have access to the internet, never mind ChatGPT. Some teachers will jump at the opportunity to change or expand their role, but I feel for the others (and especially the older generation of teachers). One faculty member, when asked how he would deal with the challenge of ChatGPT, merely responded, "I think I'll retire".

Either way, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle now, and we are going to have to figure out a way to live with ChatGPT and AI. Sure, cheating in education has been a problem for many years, maybe forever, but this adds a whole new dimension to the possibilities. Banning them seems futile, but what else to do?

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