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Why Banning ChatGPT in Class Is a Mistake

Artificial intelligence can be a valuable learning tool, if used in the right context. Here are ways to embrace ChatGPT and encourage students to think critically about the content it produces.

If you're an educator and you haven't lived under a blanket for the past couple months, you have likely heard of ChatGPT. ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence based jack-of-all-trades. You can ask it a question and it will give you a thoughtful, clear, and impressive answer (better than Google!). You can prompt it to write a poem, research paper, book proposal, script, or short story and it does so with ease. I asked it about the protein that I studied for my doctoral research and ChatGPT taught me two things that I didn't previously know. I asked it to write a short story about two people who develop a deep friendship over flipped learning and, by halfway through, I was engrossed in the plot — forgetting that it was written by a computer. If you haven't given ChatGPT a try yet, pause your reading of this article right now and give it a whirl. ChatGPT is amazing, terrifying, awe-inspiring, troubling, and just simply fascinating all in one go.

What did you think? Crazy, isn't it? ChatGPT is remarkable in the cogent flow of writing that it can produce, the accuracy (mostly) of the information it provides, and the granular stipulation of prompts that it can accommodate. It's the ideal student, writing well and effortlessly on any topic that we throw at it. After first seeing what ChatGPT could do, my mind began racing for possible applications in the college classroom.

As I began looking online to see what other educators were saying about ChatGPT, I was initially surprised and then reminded of the predominant mindset of education. Despite our preening of the opposite, educators are often anti-tech (when that tech is new and different). At the time of this writing, all schools across the huge system of New York City public education are officially banned from using or having access to ChatGPT; it has been firewalled. Students at Princeton University have already begun petitioning their administration not to ban ChatGPT, and English teachers at my own daughters' high school have already announced that all essays will now be written in class in real time. Are we serious, fellow educators? Are we really trying to delude ourselves that we'll be able to keep this technology away from our students? We've made these mistakes before.

Education's compulsion to keep new technology out of the classroom only hurts education and the students that we serve. Technology evolves, and education must evolve with it.

Here are some phrases that people my age (45 years old) or older might remember: "The use of calculators is not allowed on this exam." "Your textbook must be brought to class each day." "Wikipedia is not a source!" To each of these proclamations, I ask: why? Calculators are ubiquitous; a common tool that allows anyone to compute fairly routine mathematical calculations accurately and rapidly. Textbooks are available online as e-texts (and they weigh a lot!), often with superior and interactive figures and other elements. And Wikipedia is not a source? C'mon …. I'll bet anyone $25 that the instructors who say that in class are the same people who look up Dustin Hoffman's birthday on … wait for it … Wikipedia. Education's compulsion to keep new technology out of the classroom only hurts education and the students that we serve. Technology evolves, and education must evolve with it.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for a blind allegiance and a surrendering of thought to calculators, e-texts, Wikipedia, or technology. Calculators will spit out the wrong answer when used improperly. Textbooks offer true learning gains when students can tactically and physically interact with a book, and Wikipedia is inaccurate at times. The trick here is that we should be teaching our students how to use the tools and aids that technology provides. Teach math with calculators in the room, coach students on active and critical reading in class with physical texts, and give examples of good and bad Wikipedia entries, allowing students to recognize each for themselves. Far too many times, education has been slow to adopt and embrace new technologies and then we've played catch up. Let's not make the same mistake with what is likely to be the most revolutionary development in technology this century: ChatGPT and the AI writing tools it represents.

So, what does embracing ChatGPT look like? While I'm excited to think about that, lets start with what it doesn't look like. It's not banning ChatGPT, firewalling it, or forcing students to write in short, finite amounts of time in the artificial and distracting environment of a classroom. What it doesn't look like is a commitment to obsolescence and a refusal to accept what's only years away. A few short years from now, we (people, humans) will not be doing most of the writing of society. News stories, scientific papers, opinion pieces, fiction … most of it will be written by AI. Weird, right? But, true. I like to write and so, selfishly, I'm not too happy about ChatGPT and all it portends. But the future is here, like it or not, and AI just became a much better writer than most of us.

If that's what embracing ChatGPT doesn't look like, then what is embracing it? For starters, it's an acknowledgement of just that: "the future is here, like it or not, and AI just became a much better writer than most of us." Teaching our students to write is just like teaching our students arithmetic without a calculator or literature research without the internet. Should we teach that? Yes … once or twice. And then coach the leveraging of technology. As I sit here clacking away at my laptop keyboard, I think of my editor who will soon be reading this piece. Five years from now, she'll have her job and I won't have mine (at least not this job). The content that AI generates will always need to be edited, sourced, fact-checked, and massaged into the appropriate voice, theme, and message for the target audience. Humans are good at intuition, feel, and subtleties (in this context: editing), and that's what AI will lack for a long time still.

So let's model that, coach it and teach it to our students — the editing and analyzing of AI-generated writing. Instead of banning AI in the college classroom, I'm planning to create assignments where students must prompt ChatGPT to draft a research paper, opinion piece, or reflection, and then the student must source that paper and fact-check it as the human component of the assignment. Another idea that I'm toying with is breaking students into groups and assigning each opposing perspectives of controversial topics. Those groups would then use ChatGPT to draft talking points related to their assigned positions, and use those talking points as starting points for real time, in-class discussions. A third idea: Have students write a short paper on an assigned topic and use ChatGPT to do the same. Students then exchange these paper-pairs (one human-written and the other AI) and do a peer-review of both papers in the pair, trying to identify which is ChatGPT and why they think so. The common theme in all of these assignment ideas is the analysis of the product created by ChatGPT. Thinking critically about the content that AI produces will be essential for the next generation, and we should be teaching it today. Educators avoid this path at the peril of our own obsolescence; something higher education is already at far too much risk of already.

"In conclusion, ChatGPT has the potential to revolutionize the way college classrooms operate by providing a unique learning platform for students to engage with and ask questions. With its ability to generate human-like responses to student inquiries, ChatGPT can help facilitate discussions and provide personalized learning experiences for students. As more educational institutions begin to adopt ChatGPT and other AI technologies, it will be interesting to see how these tools continue to shape the future of higher education." (Oh, and by the way, I didn't write that last paragraph. ChatGPT did with the prompt: "write a closing paragraph for a piece on the role of ChatGPT in the college classroom.")

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