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Some Utah educators don’t see ChatGPT and AI as a threat but as an opportunity

Rakel Davis

Nationwide, teachers are still working through how to adapt to ChatGPT, but some Utah educators see positive uses for artificial intelligence in schools and aren’t afraid of it.

OpenAI released ChatGPT last November. It’s a free chatbot that can answer questions, explain math problems, summarize text, write essays and create poems.

Some school districts banned ChatGPT on school devices and networks, citing concerns about cheating, and some have viewed the program as a threat to education.

“Suddenly everyone was talking about it and everyone freaked out about it,” said Anne Cook, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Utah. “I think there’s always going to be this reaction to [new] information. And then we adapt and then we grow with it.”

For a while, Cook said the center was receiving emails almost daily from faculty and instructors asking for help with how to handle ChatGPT. The center created resources for faculty dealing with AI and the university sent a message out to campus. It recommended that faculty put a statement in their syllabus telling students that using ChatGPT for an assignment when it was not authorized or cited would be considered academic misconduct.

“After that, it's pretty much open because some professors have found that using AI within assignments can actually be a really productive thing,” Cook said.

Braxton Thornley, a language arts teacher at Bingham High School in South Jordan, said after ChatGPT first came out, he asked it to write 10 different paragraphs with the same content but a different tone. During his class the next day, Thornley split his students into groups and had them annotate the different paragraphs and analyze how the tone changed between each one.

“We were able to have a really good conversation about tone and how we build tone into writing,” Thornley said. “If I were to have to do that myself and I had to write 10 paragraphs, all with varying tones, that’s something that I could definitely do, but it would take me far longer than ChatGPT.”

In the Jordan School District, where Thornley works, ChatGPT is currently blocked for both students and teachers on all school devices and networks.

“At this time we are actively reviewing the status of chatGPT in Jordan School District,” said spokesperson Sandra Riesgraf in an email.

For now, Thornley thinks ChatGPT should be banned on student devices at K-12 schools because it is a developing program and OpenAI’s Terms of Use requires individuals under 18 to have their guardian’s permission before using it. Recently, Italy temporarily banned ChatGPT due to privacy concerns.

“I think teachers should be able to use it, but I think that they should undergo some training on it, as well. I think there’s a real risk of teachers misusing the AI systems and maybe inputting secure student information into the systems.”

Thornley said he is a little concerned that there have not been more conversations within the education system surrounding tools like ChatGPT and that there isn’t a more developed plan for moving forward.

While part of Thornley’s role is to teach students information, he views his primary role as teaching them skills, something he thinks he can do better than AI. Thornley said there have been a few times when a student has tried to pass off work created by AI as their own. Overall, he’s not too worried about his students misusing AI and cheating.

Cook thinks it would be futile to ban ChatGPT.

“Middle schoolers will find a way around any ban or fence you set up. So you might as well teach them about this technology because it’s not going away,” she said. “Teach them about what it’s good for and what it’s not good for. And I kind of feel the same way about educators.”

To that end, Cook is focusing on making sure her students understand the material and engage with it. She said she can do this by reframing her essay prompt questions so they have to use specific theories and materials that have been discussed in class in their essays, something a bot can’t do.

“What I mean by educators have to ‘up their game’ is that we have to make sure that what we're doing is innovative and challenging and motivating to keep students thinking about the material, instead of going to these sort of easy fix it tools,” Cook said.

As AI becomes more developed, Thornley thinks there are possibilities to help save teachers time and help make school more individualized for each student.

“I am one part worried and one part excited, and I think a lot of teachers are in that boat. I don't want to speak on behalf of anyone, but that seems to be the feeling that I get from people is we're moving into this future that has so much potential.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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