Students at Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK High School are learning how to use ChatGPT. The service is a form of artificial intelligence that can spit out a fully written essay, although students at the high school are learning how to use it properly to complete assignments.  Credit: Barry Sloan

“Write me a 12th grade essay on the nature of love in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I’d like it to be 500 words.”

When Patrick Fogarty, director of technology for the Jericho School District, feeds this prompt to ChatGPT, within seconds, the chatbot spits out a fully written essay.

This is the kind of capability parents should be aware of regarding artificial intelligence technology, which has taken off exponentially this school year. ChatGPT is an online tool that allows users to enter a prompt and have the bot do the work to provide answers. Using it is similar to doing a Google search, except instead of results being offered as links to other sources, the bot synthesizes those sources to complete a fully formed task.

“It’s unfolding before our eyes. It’s powerful and, obviously, with power comes some need to be concerned,” says Jay Murphy, district administrator for instructional technology for the Deer Park School District.

Educators emphasize that schools and families should embrace the technology and teach students how to use it properly and for their benefit, because it’s not going away. “Like any new technology, you can resist it, or you can learn it and teach responsible use. You can’t ignore it,” says Whittney Smith, director of instructional technology and assessment for the Mineola School District.

Here are 10 things educators say parents of elementary, middle and high school students should know about ChatGPT, launched last November by California-based OpenAI. “It’s not all good or bad,” Fogarty says. “I think it’s good for parents to know what it can or can’t do.”

1. Users first sign up for an account with OpenAI. ChatGPT has a use restriction for children younger than 13, and those 14 to 17 are supposed to have parental permission. But there is no mechanism for proving age or verifying parental approval, so if your child wants to register, he or she will likely be able to do so without you aware of it. “I would assume that kids are using it at home for sure,” Fogarty says. According to the OpenAI website, the company is working on verification methods.

2. Users enter their email address and choose a password to create an account. ChatGPT also asks for a cellphone number for verification. It isn’t an app that users create a page or profile and share, like Instagram or Facebook. It's a service. ChatGPT synthesizes information it was trained with — a data set gleaned from websites, scanned books and more through 2021 — to create responses to request prompts.

3. It's not clear how search data might eventually be collected or used. The company website states, "We may automatically collect information about your use of the services, such as the type of content that you view or engage with, the features you use and the actions you take, as well as your time zone, country, the dates and times of access..." It also says that "in certain circumstances, we may provide your personal information to third parties without further notice to you, unless required by the law." Warns Fogarty: "This is a new and emerging technology and we're just getting comfortable with it." 

4. The basic version is currently free. ChatGPT also has a pay version that has more advanced features. Other companies are also developing similar AI technology.

5. ChatGPT can be helpful. For instance, a student could ask it to generate a packing list for an away soccer tournament, and the bot will list specific items. Students could ask ChatGPT to generate a romantic response to a text from a girlfriend — think Cyrano de Bergerac. “He’s getting lines from someone who is more adept at speaking to women than he is,” Fogarty says. Students could prompt, “I’m having trouble sleeping. Can you give me some pointers?”

6. Students need to be careful with how they use ChatGPT for schoolwork. They should not be requesting the ChatGPT write an essay for them that they then hand in, educators say. “I think it’s really right on that line where we don’t know how students are going to be using it,” says Michael Randazzo, a mathematics and computer science teacher at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School. Students have become crafty — Fogarty was able to ask ChatGPT, for instance, to take the completed Shakespeare essay and insert 10 grammatical errors so that teachers might be less suspicious that someone (or rather, some thing) other than a 12th-grader wrote it. ChatGPT can also help with subjects besides English or social studies; it could generate answers to a student’s math homework, for instance. Schools have already been using software such as Turnitin to try to detect when a student has plagiarized work from the web — and Turnitin has added an AI detection component to discover whether a student has copied work done by ChatGPT.

7. Parents and schools should empower students to use the service properly. Brian Buonomo, lead teacher for engineering technology for the West Islip School District, has discussions about that with his own children, ages 13, 17 and 20. “If kids learn to use it the right way, maybe they won’t be cheating with it,” he says. Students should use ChatGPT for brainstorming and as a resource for ideas that they then consider and incorporate into their own work, educators say. If they don’t understand something, they can ask ChatGPT to explain it in a certain way. “One of the examples is ‘Explain Bitcoin to me as if I’m a third-grader,' ” says Patrick Kiley-Rendon, executive director of technology and innovation for the West Islip School District. “If they’re studying, they could ask it for bullet points. ‘What are five things I need to know about cellular mitosis?’ ”

8. Kids should be learning informational literacy. ChatGPT is not always correct, the educators say. “It’s not 100% on anything,” Fogarty says. Also, information taken from the web can come from unreliable sources: fake images, fake audio or video. “Information can be bent,” Murphy says. Parents and educators should also make sure their children understand this, the educators say.

9. Schools are figuring out how their districts might apply the technology in the classroom. “I think every school is scrambling to figure that out now,” Buonomo says. Randazzo says he has used it in his high school computer science classes to have students write their own code for a project and then check to see how ChatGPT would have done it, to compare and analyze. Deer Park has formed a committee to look at the technology in depth and determine how it should or shouldn’t be used, and by whom, Murphy says. Other districts are balancing student data privacy concerns. Tom Rogers, superintendent of schools for the Syosset School District, says groups of teachers at his middle schools are exploring possibilities. Rogers compares the advent of ChatGPT to past innovations in technology that initially made schools wary, including the calculator, Wikipedia and Google. “We don’t’ see them as so threatening anymore,” he says. “In my own lens, I see ChatGPT in the same vein of progress. It will open the door to much richer educational experiences for students. The challenge we have as educators is what those experiences are.”

10. The technology can speed up rote tasks to give people more time to focus on things only humans can do. Teachers, for instance, can use ChatGPT to help them initially grade student work, giving them more time to focus on more complex and nuanced feedback, educators say. When Fogarty copied and pasted ChatGPT’s own "Romeo and Juliet" essay into the prompt and asked ChatGPT to grade it, “it thought it did well on the introduction and conclusion,” Fogarty says, “and it gave itself a C on the body paragraph and noted the grammatical errors we told it to make.”

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