Hasta la vista, homework? Considering the role of ChatGPT in education
Dr John Taylor, director of learning, teaching and innovation at Cranleigh School, considers the role AI can play in education and the potential of platforms such as ChatGPT to catalyse change across the sector.
Robots threaten to terminate normal school life: this is scarcely an exaggeration of the fears stoked by the recent widespread uptake of generative artificial intelligence (AI) large language models.
In a manner that is more than a little reminiscent of 80s science fiction, the motif is one of threat, challenge and destruction. The end of homework, the death of coursework - we even have some questioning whether AI will replace teachers.
There is a sort of technophobia underpinning some of the more extreme pronouncements and discussions at the moment. This is not helpful to the task of educators, who are right now looking creatively and thoughtfully at what, used well, promises to be a game-changing, beneficial digital resource. It could support levelling up, building skills and moving education forward into a new space which is both more open and more authentic.
The key to all this is to understand that, like any tool, the issue is not the tool itself but the way it is used. Students have discovered generative AI and find it helpful for suggesting ideas. Plus, a lot of time-poor teachers are finding it extraordinarily helpful as a tool for generating customised, focussed resources for immediate classroom deployment.
The doom loopers and nay-sayers are calling attention to the misuse cases. There’s no doubt that a digital tool that can do a good job on many homework assignments is going to need to be hedged around with a bunch of safeguards and some clear policies framed for appropriate use.
But the majority of students don’t want to cheat - they want to learn. Now, thanks to AI, a tool which will really assist many of them is going to be literally at their fingertips.
Let’s also not forget that for a significant proportion of students, coping daily with the challenges of specific learning needs, neurodiversity or working in a second language, a whole lot of barriers to learning are going to come tumbling down thanks to AI.
If the answer to fears of misuse is the promotion of appropriate use, the right question to ask is: what does this look like? I suggest that we need an AI philosophy for education based on the 3Rs: responsibility, reform and relationship.
If ‘first do no harm’ is the starting point for medical ethics, it wouldn’t be a bad place to begin a code for use of AI in educational settings. Responsible use is the watchword. This will go for all those involved on the supply side, as producers and developers of technology, as well as for those of us in the classroom.
The good news is that digital technology offers unparalleled tools for tracking and tracing learners’ work, so we can build secure spaces where usage is appropriately monitored and limits can be placed around the access to tools depending on the nature of the assignment and its role in learning or assessment settings.
A responsible framework is a good starting point. The next step is to consider reform.
Whilst I am keen to damp down some of the more emotional responses to AI, there is no denying that it has real power to catalyse change across the education sector. In particular, it is going to put rocket boosters behind the whole conversation about assessment reform.
It is simply not going to be tenable to spend countless hours training students to produce model responses to questions that an AI can answer in seconds. AI is going to quicken the tempo of assessment reform.
The forward momentum should carry us in the direction of a more learner-centred, responsive, creative assessment framework, one framed around deeper, authentic challenges. We have to move away from the conception of learning as the recall of right answers to envisaging it as a creative process of responding to open-ended questions.
This is a conversation that is already alive following a pandemic-induced seismic shift in assessment practice. Homework is not terminated, but it is going to have to evolve. Projects, practical challenges, questions that learners choose for themselves - these are going to become the staple diet of ongoing assessment in the AI-assisted educational domain.
Which leads us to the final R: relationship.
It is no longer in the realm of science fiction to envisage a time when all students will have at their fingertips a digital tutor able to provide on-demand instruction in any field of human inquiry. Hasta la vista, teacher? Of course not. Just as the advent of technology is going to reconfigure assessment, so it is going to accelerate a change in our understanding of the role of the teacher.
The teacher’s job as director and instructor will still be present but the emphasis will now lie on the model of teacher as coach and mentor, working in a productive relationship with both learner and their digital learning assistants to help frame deep, significant, personally motivating and accessible challenges that will constitute the starting point of genuine journeys of learning and discovery.
Those of us who utilise extended projects in the classroom know that it is in these settings that learning really comes to life and the most enjoyable, memorable and, occasionally, life-changing learning experiences occur. The teacher’s role will be to stimulate inquiry, then mentor learners through this process.
AI is going to bring us back to remembering what it is that we value most in teachers: their capacity to serve as sources of inspiration and an infectious joy in learning. The social, emotional, human-centred aspects of learning will be joined by new technologically-enhanced cognitive powers. The net effect is going to be a transformative, life-enhancing rediscovery of what learning really can be at its best.
It’s not hasta la vista - it’s buenos dias.