ChatGPT and other generative AI tools have been the focus of public attention for less than a year now but, it seems, have already caused fatigue. While some notable experts called for an immediate moratorium on all AI experiments because we are not yet ready for such advanced technology, others yawned and called generative LLMs like GPT “dumb” and nothing but glorified word calculators.
Even though our relationship with AI has been confusing, messy, and controversial, and the consensus is nowhere in sight – and maybe precisely because of all this – we should already be integrating courses that teach students about AI into the curriculum. It’s already here and influences reality – that should be enough.
One of the problems with education is that it constantly plays catch-up with reality and prepares students for yesterday, not for tomorrow – and nothing illustrates this feature as vividly as technology. By the time schools decided they needed computer classes to teach students some basics of coding in obsolete languages, students had already figured out how to create personal websites and make customized tools with open-source code. Yet, in reality, it wastes an opportunity to evolve and be flexible enough to cater to each generation of students in a unique way. Now the calculation power available to AI companies and researchers has reached the level that allows AI once more to dazzle us with its new-found prowess – and be big enough to be reckoned with.
Do students need it?
Students must understand AI’s capabilities. Students, being younger than teachers (as a rule), possess two things full-grown functioning adults regretfully tend to lack: curiosity and free time to explore and play around. Outsourcing boring essays to ChatGPT doesn’t give students an insight into how LLMs work. Are today’s students “tech savvy” because they know how to pop their writing prompt into a dialog window instead of looking for online essay help resources like sample libraries or free essay writer tools like grammar checkers, citation generators, or plagiarism detectors? This brings me to my next point.
AI shows us what’s wrong with writing
The widespread fear is that ChatGPT upends education by making take-home exams and essays obsolete, thus making students barely capable of expressing their thoughts in writing. Yet, AI didn’t create this problem – it shone a light on it. That’s what many students had already been doing: imitating writing based on tired formulas and things they thought their teachers wanted them to say.
That’s one of the great uses we can have for AI. Showing students how not to write. Because knowledge of the facts is only a tiny part of what’s being assessed.
Some more forward-thinking teachers encouraged their students to use generative AI for their assignments. Most students were frustrated with the task because they were not satisfied even with the edited results and were embarrassed to hand in sub-par essays. They also found that AI often “hallucinates,” making up quotes, confusing events, and inventing people, so fact-checking it might prove to be more work than one can possibly save.
Other educators instructed students to write a paper, then generate one with the help of AI and compare the results. I believe that it also prompted the feeling of creative pride and intellectual ownership over their own text that they won’t be willing to let go of – that’s a lesson worth teaching, if you ask me.
ChatGPT holds a mirror to the education system and its failures, but this is a good thing because it can help us to fix it.
I, for one, already know the generated text when I see one – no need for OpenAI and their AI Text Classifier or any other detector. A linguistic synthesizer with a very, very large but still finite number of keys to play upon.
How AI can enhance academic writing
However, being a bad example doesn’t exhaust AI’s usefulness for students. Yes, it only takes a few seconds to generate a draft, but turning it into an engaging piece of writing requires as much work as if a student had written it in the first place – and that’s not always evident for beginner writers. Fact-checking, eliminating repetitiveness, clarifying your points, making sure the arguments follow each other logically – that’s a painstaking job most students skip when they are the sole author. By introducing editing exercises involving AI-generated input, we can train students in editing and self-editing. Students could use some instruction in telling the former from the latter and benefit greatly from exploring the most relevant journal articles and obtaining optimal search results in minutes instead of spending hours trying out various queries. By the way, crafting specific queries that will yield relevant results is also a skill that doesn’t necessarily come naturally and should be taught.
AIs can also be used for something it was developed for initially – processing large pieces of text and returning the gist of it, so one could know whether it’s valuable and worth reading or irrelevant. That’s something I could definitely use back in my college days when I was scraping to find anything adjacent to my obscure thesis topic (the analog card catalog still haunts my nightmares).
Yet most importantly, it can demonstrate to students that much like the word processor in their computer, online dictionary, spellchecker, or text prediction, generative AI is nothing but a tool for writing, whereas the writing itself is a way to communicate your ideas to other human beings. Teaching how to use ChatGPT and similar generative AI is the best way to show students that the most valuable things in writing are critical thinking, creativity, and understanding of the real world reflected in the text – something that could never happen without them. What happens inside the black box of a complex algorithm is just an illusionist trick.
Preparing for the future
Yet by far, the most important reason to teach students about AI is to prepare them for the growing sophistication of the AI systems yet to arrive. Already multimodal AIs are being developed, paving the way for the general AI – a system that will supposedly be able to do anything. Not unlike tools that are already being used to describe the environment and objects around to visually impaired users, they are designed to make sense of the world and function in a 3D space – or to create and alter it following someone’s command, akin to text-to-image tools like DALL-E and Midjourney.
GPT is already obsolete. Students need to be ready to use it wisely and constructively. We need to demystify AI for young people as soon as possible.
We must teach them to understand the responsibility and power that comes with wielding such systems.
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