Will AI program ChatGPT change how schools teach? Tacoma educators and staff weigh in

TNS

Anyone who has seen the news lately may have heard about a generative artificial intelligence chatbot called ChatGPT. News about the AI tool popular with students keeps on coming.

On Monday, Microsoft announced it will invest $10 billion into OpenAI Inc., the company founded by entrepreneur and programmer Sam Altman that created ChatGPT. Various media outlets have detailed the chatbot’s ability to pass rigorous exams, help students cheat on class assignments and produce essay responses eerily similar to human writing and conversational speech.

In fact, the AI’s ability to mimic human speech is driving a debate about whether or not the tool will invalidate writing assignments altogether.

ChatGPT was released in late November, but educators in the Tacoma area are just beginning to discuss potential impacts on education.

The News Tribune spoke with local school communications officers and staff who are involved in discussions about emerging AI, alongside the pros and cons of accessible AI software within the overall learning experience.

Pierce County school response to ChatGPT

So far in January, several schools near Tacoma say students have been using the AI software to complete assignments, while some schools say they haven’t had any cases. Employees at five institutions of higher education and one K-12 public school district replied to The News Tribune’s request for comment.

At Pacific Lutheran University, there haven’t been any reported cases of students utilizing ChatGPT, according to Zach Powers, director of communications. Powers said via email this week that the university is planning to monitor the situation.

The same holds true for Tacoma Public Schools, according to Tanisha Jumper, head of communications for TPS. She said in an email that the school has banned the chatbot on the school’s online system, but faculty have not had any formal conversations on the impact of AI on learning.

Similarly, faculty members at Bates Technical College in Tacoma haven’t reported any instances of students using ChatGPT to cheat, according to Chelsea Lindquist, the college’s assistant director of communications and marketing. Lindquist said in an email, though, that the college is aware of AI’s rising popularity. The school is forming a work group to discuss topics like how to train students to use AI ethically, potential benefits to the educational experience, and how to cultivate a school culture that values academic integrity and honesty.

ChatGPT has made its way some schools, though. Faculty at the University of Washington believe students have used the AI tool for class assignments, according to university spokesperson Victor Balta. He said AI presents students and faculty with ethical quandaries, and it forces people to reconsider their relationship to technology.

“AI-based tools like ChatGPT spotlight remarkable human ingenuity, however it takes thoughtful adoption to truly benefit society,” Balta said over email. “Learning only happens when we move outside the comfort of [what] we already know. Using AI tools to avoid this kind of learning can rob students of opportunities to become better thinkers and more effective writers.”

Gareth Barkin is dean of operations and technology at the University of Puget Sound and has been neck-deep in discussions surrounding ChatGPT. Barkin told The News Tribune via email that he is collaborating with school faculty to update the school’s language on academic honesty. He said that the school’s faculty held its first workshop earlier this week that focused on ChatGPT.

In addition to formal discussions, Barkin added that the school has already seen some instances of students using AI on school assignments.

“We have already had reports of suspected use of these tools to complete assignments, though not many,” Barkin said in an email. “I think being a liberal arts school with small class sizes and close relationships between students and faculty has helped us a lot in that regard. We know our students and how they write, so the use of AI tools stands out to us more clearly.”

Using AI in Tacoma classrooms

Although ChatGPT can be used as a shortcut for tests and assignments, some schools have started having formal conversations on how AI fits into a school’s curriculum

The University of Washington has a webpage that outlines strategies for educators on how to approach the subject, as well as academic misconduct. The page encourages teachers to think about incorporating AI into their teaching and to stress to students that process is more important than an assignment product.

The University of Puget Sound’s Barkin said that faculty have expressed interest in incorporating AI into the education system. He explained that if teachers include AI in their learning plans, it can demystify what the technology can and can’t do.

Some employees at Tacoma Community College are cautiously optimistic about how AI can benefit the educational experience. That includes Dale Coleman, dean of library and learning innovation at the college. Coleman said in an interview that he believes the opportunities for positive outcomes outweigh negative ones.

For example, AI has the potential to provide real-time support to students who struggle with software, Coleman said. For example, newer students struggle with using unfamiliar technology and software. An AI system can give guidance to students on questions they have about how to utilize technology. Coleman used the school’s learning management system, Canvas, as an example. Students use Canvas to navigate course materials and submit assignments. Newer students often have a difficult time navigating Canvas, Coleman said, so ChatGPT could provide students with directions they find difficult.

AI can also allow educators to think more creatively about how they teach and assess student work. If a teacher is worried that their students are plagiarizing essays from ChatGPT, they can require students to write about a personal experience and connect it to a course text, Coleman said. For Barkin, oral exams are another alternative.

Finally, Coleman, Balta and Barkin all say that the tool can be a great starting point for conducting academic research, as well as teaching students about AI literacy. For these three educators, AI can serve as a gateway to help students develop digital literacy and critical thinking skills.

“Since the invention of the phonograph, and then followed by popular motion pictures, followed by the radio … and the CD ROM, there’s always been a new technology that was going to destroy higher education and put teachers out of business,” Coleman said. “The heart of instruction is always going to be a social experience.”

Despite the good AI can do for education, Coleman said he remains cautious about how students and companies implement it.