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December 8, 2023 3:52 am

Local News

As ChatGPT Enters Classrooms, Teachers See a Threat – And a Tool

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by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

The first time Maureen Psaradelis suspected that artificial intelligence had infiltrated her high school English classroom came after an assignment about “The Great Gatsby.”

Psaradellis had assigned an essay to analyze the themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, the widely studied story rooted in 1920s socioeconomic conflict. 

But one of her students turned in a paper with an analysis that hadn’t come up at all in a month of classroom discussion. The tensions between some of the characters, the student wrote, came down to differences between East Coast and West Coast cultures. Some of the characters, including narrator Nick Carraway, multi-millionaire Jay Gatsby, and acquaintances Daisy and Tom Buchanan, are from the Midwest, a background that made them all inherent outsiders to the Long Island elite, the student suggested.

“I’m noticing students are talking about all these symbolisms that we never discussed in class, or we never did any activity around,” said Psaradelis, who teaches at Alvirne High School in Hudson. “That, to me, was sort of a red flag.” 

There were other details in the essay that seemed off: unusually sophisticated vocabulary and a failure to use the school’s preferred citation style for references. 

By then Psaradelis had heard of “ChatGPT,” a program by the company OpenAI that can generate complex responses to questions using artificial intelligence. And she had heard some educators warn of the possibility that students might use the program to help craft essays and other assignments.

So she booted up the site herself, copied her student‘s essay into ChatGPT, and asked it a simple question: “Did you formulate this response?”

The answer was direct. “‘Yes I did,” the computer said, she recalled in an interview. “‘I was answering this question.’ And it provided almost the exact essay prompt that I provided,” she said.

Psaradelis talked to the student, who admitted to using the AI program and apologized. But the incident is an early example of what she and other teachers worry could soon be the norm. 

Ever since ChatGPT launched in December – and received widespread news coverage in January – technologists, journalists, politicians, and business leaders have discussed the profound benefits and threats the software poses to modern life. But few have watched the new technology more closely than teachers, who say the powerful new writing tools could change the way they teach humanities, for better or worse.

“This is kind of like our calculator moment,” said Kristina Peterson, an English teacher at Exeter High School, referring to the challenge for calculus teachers posed by the emergence of graphing calculators. 

ChatGPT is a “chatbot” that uses language learning models created by OpenAI to give complex responses to user questions. The model trains itself and draws on large databases of internet text to formulate new text in response to questions.

The conversation-based chatbot can suggest recipes, travel itineraries, party ideas, emails, product descriptions, and role-playing exercises, among other functions. It can also write essays.

The language model has been adopted recently by a number of companies, including Google, Bing, and Snapchat, each of which are hoping to harness the technology to create advanced ways for users to get answers and assistance from their computers. 

Educators have two broad concerns: that the technology could encourage cheating by helping students write essays, and that it could feed them wrong information. 

When Peterson first heard about ChatGPT, she assumed it would be applied mostly to analytical writing, like essays. She didn’t consider creative writing. But recently, one her students used the program to help write a slam poem about football. The student and Peterson had already brainstormed the idea: It would be written as a pastiche of an existing poem, a countdown poem called “21,” by Patrick Roche. 

When the poem was turned in, however, the structure was strange. It used a rhyming structure that is not common in spoken-word poetry, and followed an organized pattern. Questioned by Peterson, the student said it had been written by artificial intelligence.

For Alvirne history teacher Jeff Peterson, accuracy is also a major worry. Often the AI programs do not cite sources. And they deliver responses in an authoritative tone, even when the substance is false. 

As an experiment, Peterson pulled up ChatGPT on his own laptop and gave it a simple task: Come up with a list of books and other sources for World War II history. The computer named a few well-known texts, like “Band of Brothers” by Stephen Ambrose and “Stalingrad” by Antony Beevor. 

But it also named “The Guns of August,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Barbara W. Tuchman.

“That’s about World War I,” Peterson said. “That’s why World War I started.”

He added: “I have seen Chat GPT pulling sources that are either not real or not relevant or germane to the topic. So I think just like with anything going online, you have to be able to vet sources, and make sure that it’s relevant and legitimate.”

Brett Vance, a social studies teacher at Alvirne High School, said he hasn’t run into issues with ChatGPT yet. So far, his students have discussed it more as an object of curiosity and a means to enhance research, and not a way to cheat. 

Still, Vance said, he’s worried about what the technology could bring. “There’s a certain typology of students that might see this as just a tool to lessen their burden and complete an assignment,” he said. 

Teachers say they are torn between a desire to curb the behavior and a realization that the technology is here to stay. Many New Hampshire schools have banned the ChatGPT site from their networks, making it inaccessible by students using school-issued laptops on campus. 

And most humanities teachers use Turnitin, an anti-plagiarism website that allows teachers to catch when students have taken sentences or paragraphs from others – including other student papers across the country. Turnitin now includes a feature that the company says can detect submissions written by artificial intelligence.

But students will likely be able to get around bans on the software, and the AI detection efforts aren’t fool-proof, teachers acknowledge. 

“I don’t want to be the teacher that just spins my wheels trying to find cheating or plagiarizing in my class,” Kristina Peterson said. “I don’t want to have that relationship with learning or with my students. And I really try hard to have them think of themselves as readers and writers and not students.” 

Meanwhile, ascertaining authorship in a world of AI can be tricky. Sometimes assumptions prove wrong. 

While Kristina Peterson had initial suspicions about two of her Gatsby essays, she later determined that only one had actually been written with AI. The student who wrote the second essay was able to prove authorship by revealing their editing history in Google Docs. 

Some teachers have discussed emphasizing in-class writing exercises over out-of-class essays and using graded discussions to assess how well students are grasping the material. 

School districts are working to quickly adapt. This year’s spring conference of the New Hampshire Council of Teachers of English featured a presentation about AI, co-led by Kristina Peterson. And teachers expect more trainings and strategy sessions to be held over the summer. 

Peterson has advice to her fellow teachers: Try out the technology yourself. “Because the only way we’re going to spot it is if we know what it looks like,” she said. 

Knowing the often-formulaic writing style of artificial intelligence helped Peterson identify red flags within the football poem, she said. 

To many educators, the best approach for combating AI is to convince students they don’t want to be using it in the first place. And that means going back to an age-old teaching tool: inspiration. 

“My concerns are mostly with how this tool could actually take the curiosity out of learning,” Vance said. “In my opinion, the (highest) level of knowledge is attained through work. So that means students cracking open the books for hours at a time – writing, rewriting. This is a process – learning is an arduous process, and it takes time.”

Some say teachers should regard AI as a tool for writing – if not a replacement for it. After all, Kristina Peterson reasons, the technology is only going to grow.

“They’re going to be using it no matter what job they do when they leave these four walls,” she said. “So I might as well at least talk to them about it a little bit.”

This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.