ATA News

Emerging AI tools are both disruptive and exciting

Executive Report

Q&A with an ATA technology expert

How much of a game changer is ChatGPT?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) text generation tools like ChatGPT that are emerging are, in my view, the most disruptive technologies I’ve seen since interactive whiteboards and projectors entered classrooms, and possibly since the internet itself entered our schools.

What concerns do teachers have about ChatGPT?

The primary concern of teachers is with student work that is created by generative AI tools like ChatGPT and the difficulty of knowing how much of what the student provides the teacher is based on their understanding versus what the AI tool has generated for them. These tools can generate text in so many different writing forms, and in such clear and effective natural language, that it becomes extremely difficult to determine whether a piece of writing came from a student’s mind, from ChatGPT or somewhere on the continuum between these two.

How does this technology compare to others that teachers have already been dealing with?

Since students began submitting work done outside of the classroom, there have always been some questions regarding plagiarism, copied work or work completed by another student. In the digital age, this risk was amplified somewhat by access to internet resources and typed digital submissions not being as easy to identify as handwritten work. 

With tools like ChatGPT, this risk of students submitting work not their own is amplified even further, as these tools can generate very precise written submissions. For example, you can ask ChatGPT, “write an 800 word essay at the Grade 7 level summarizing the theme of freedom of choice found in the novel The Giver,” and in 20 seconds or less it’s completed. Furthermore, the tool “remembers” the conversation and would allow the user to say, “write another version of this essay but talk more about X and less about Y,” and the tool will generate new text. For teachers whose primary method of identifying student understanding is through written work done outside of the classroom, this turns the classroom learning and assessment model completely on its head.

What types of strategies/actions are teachers undertaking in response to this technology?

Teachers are beginning to do a variety of things in response to generative AI tools. They’re teaching students about the ethical uses of AI in their lives as digital citizens. They’re treating ChatGPT like a “thinking partner” to generate and evaluate ideas, questions, responses and other outputs during class time. They are rethinking their methods of assessment to include less written work done outside the classroom and more performance-based tasks in class, more written work or quizzes being done live in class, or more submissions from students of video responses of themselves talking through screen recording tools such as Flip.

What are some positive aspects of the technology that teachers can tap into and use productively?

The most exciting aspect of these generative AI tools is the potential time savings for teachers in generating classroom learning materials. Here’s an example I tried, related to Grade 4, as I was first exploring ChatGPT. I first asked the tool to generate eight multiple-choice questions about the parts of a plant, suitable for fourth grade students as a retrieval practice learning activity, which it did in a few seconds. My next command was, “Create an answer key for these questions,” which it did. 

Thinking about cross-curricular connections related to this plant growth and changes unit in of about 800 words at a Grade 4 level about a girl who learns what plants need to live.” This could be used in language arts as a model text while continuing the learning in science. The story was really quite interesting: a young girl named Sophie learned about the essentials that plants need to survive, as her own plants were not doing well.

Continuing with language arts in a potential model writing lesson on the use of dialogue and quotations in stories, I next commanded, “Rewrite this same story but include dialogue between characters,” and immediately I saw a very similar story generated in which Sophie spoke to her mother about the challenges she saw with her plants. 

To assist students with identifying punctuation in language arts, I finally commanded, “Rewrite this exact story but leave out all punctuation,” which it did. 

I did all of these things to generate materials for multiple lessons in about three minutes. In fact, teachers are asking ChatGPT to write a series of lesson plans to generate lesson ideas, write sample texts for students to analyze in class, and even generate potential feedback comments they could adapt given the criteria of assignments they have. The potential time savings for teachers is immeasurable, and it allows the teacher to spend more time generating excellent lesson ideas and less time on the menial tasks of the classroom related to generating learning materials. 

What is your main message for teachers with respect to this technology?

My main message for teachers regarding the emergence of generative AI tools is to always remember that they are the teacher who leads the classroom learning experience; who knows and understands their students; who evaluates their students’ understanding and provides the feedback they need in the way they need it; and who builds and maintains strong relationships with their student, colleague and parent communities. 
While generative AI tools can provide ideas and materials to save teachers a great deal of time, they must never relinquish their autonomy and responsibility as the leaders of classroom learning. They can also help students navigate these new technologies in ethical ways that help their lives, as the functionality and proliferation of these tools will only expand exponentially in the years to come.

Danny Maas is an executive staff officer in the ATA’s Professional Development program area. An expert in emerging technology, he has held various technology-related leadership roles throughout his 30-year career in education.

Danny Maas
Danny Maas

ATA Executive Staff Officer

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