It's Aug. 30, the first day of school, and Jericho technology teacher Matthew Silva is asking for a show of hands: How many students have dabbled with the artificial intelligence app ChatGPT?
A few arms go up. The students' hesitancy shows that ChatGPT — which can produce an essay, solve a math problem or write computer code from a single written prompt — remains a charged and stigmatized topic, said Silva, recalling that opening day with his high school video production class.
The controversial artificial intelligence tool is clearly the next big step in education, but to where? Is it a digital cheating machine, or a tool to enhance learning?
Long Island schools are working on their own answers as students return to class, nearly a year after ChatGPT was introduced last November. It arrived with a splash nationally, going viral and spurring the creation of other chatbots, such as Bard, Bing Chat and YouChat.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Long Island educators, who first greeted apps such as ChatGPT with widespread condemnation, now say they realize AI is here to stay, that students are already familiar with it, and that schools need to adjust.
- Many districts are working to craft guidelines that balance the proper use of artificial intelligence apps with protecting academic integrity and student privacy.
- Some teachers say they are revising some of their methods, such as having students write more essays in class where they can be monitored.
Across the country, many educators who first greeted these apps with condemnation now say they realize AI is here to stay. Students are already familiar with it, they say, and schools need to adjust. Many schools are struggling to craft guidelines that balance the proper use of these tools with protecting academic integrity and student privacy.
Long Island educators say discussion about the AI apps has blown up their email chains and prompted a bevy of faculty workshops over the summer — addressing fears that students will cheat with them, but also hopes that they can be teaching tools.
"I am going to be approaching it like hot coals. I'm examining it. I might feel the fire a bit, but I'm going to proceed with caution," Silva said. He added, "If you shun it, then you make it even more desirable."
Apps powerful, yet flawed
ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence tools are still finding their place in education. Some teachers say they're working on ways to use the apps to help students study for exams, draft outlines for projects and bring complicated concepts down to understandable terms.
"AI has a big future. It's not going away. It's a breakthrough and we need to understand it," said Patrick Kiley-Rendon, technology director with the West Islip district. "It's not perfect, but we can use it to generate ideas and then create our own from that."
Educators hope that by openly discussing these chatbots in class, they'll reduce the stigma, reframe the apps as a positive, and not so subtly let students know that they are aware of them and on the lookout for their darker uses, such as plagiarism, he said.
The apps can be used as a study aid, synthesizing a topic down to bullet points, Kiley-Rendon said. They can help a student learn physics by crafting complicated concepts in terms of, say, a football play.
Nonetheless, educators said they are bracing for potentially negative impacts of AI in the classroom.
"We're in a transitional period — some teachers will be embracing it and others may be pushing back against it," said Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. "All will be looking to discern between original content versus what is produced by artificial intelligence."
Vecchio said he has yet to see Island school boards craft policies around AI, but any kind of cheating or plagiarism would fall under existing codes of conduct for students.
Educators are also becoming familiar with apps such as Turnitin that can help spot the use of AI in a student's paper. ChatGPT is especially challenging for instructors because it produces original prose, which makes it harder to spot work lifted from a another source.
The app also has a propensity to generate work not based in fact. The app's parent company, OpenAI, addresses that in a disclaimer on its website, saying "ChatGPT may produce inaccurate information about people, places, or facts."
Still, OpenAI has faced numerous legal challenges asserting that the false information was damaging, and that the app collected people's work without their permission.
A Georgia-based radio host, Mark Walters, sued ChatGPT's parent company, OpenAI, for defamation in June, alleging ChatGPT created a false legal summary that accused him of embezzlement and fraud. OpenAI argued that app makes clear that its responses are not always accurate, and that the response in question did not rise to the level of defamation, according to court documents.
Also, a U.S. judge imposed $5,000 fines on two lawyers and a law firm in June after the attorneys submitted a legal brief that included six fictitious case citations produced by ChatGPT.
In addition, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation in June into whether OpenAI, by publishing false information and collecting public data, violated consumer protection laws.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is currently holding sessions with AI companies — including tech leaders such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk — as the Senate prepares to draft legislation to regulate the artificial intelligence industry.
On guard against cheating
What happens when a student gets caught lifting an essay from ChatGPT?
Back in May, Brentwood High School Spanish teacher Verónica Labrador Monteiro did just that. A student handed in an essay that, she said, she knew right away came from ChatGPT.
"The composition seemed wonky. … The vocabulary was much higher than the class was learning. It was too advanced," she said.
Labrador Monteiro said she sat down with the student, who looked pretty pale when she raised the accusation. He admitted to plagiarizing, she said. She explained that getting caught in college for something like this could bring him significant grief.
"I believe in second chances. I told him that he could redo it and he did," Labrador Monteiro said.
This school year, she said, she's made sure to warn her students ahead of time that cheating with AI apps will earn them a zero on assignments.
Some educators say they are revising some of their teaching methods, such as having students write more essays in class where they can be monitored. And they are making a point of stressing to students the importance of academic honesty and that they need to own the work they hand in.
"We're talking about how to roll it out, emphasizing ethics and proper digital citizenship," said Kim Crouch, West Islip's elementary technology integration specialist.
Shelly Palmer, a Syracuse University professor of advanced media, compared what's happening with ChatGPT to those times when educators thought they could restrict the use of search tools such as Google and Alta Vista.
"I don't think there's a teacher on the face of the earth who doubts that being extremely good at searching on the web is an important life skill," Palmer said, adding that AI skills also will be necessary in the work world. "At the end of the day, it's not a competitive edge, it's a required skill."
The New York City school system had banned ChatGPT in January, only to reverse that decision in May, with officials saying they are ready to start embracing AI.
State education officials say policies on the use of AI are left to individual districts. At the same time, state education law requires districts to protect student information. Software companies must sign agreements with districts regarding the use of private data. ChatGPT's parent company, OpenAI, is not yet signing such agreements, school officials said.
Consequently, Island school officials are restricting students' use of ChatGPT by not allowing them to open an account with their school email, officials said. At the same time, teachers know students can find other ways to log in with some other account or device.
ChatGPT is free to use, but people must register to use it. There is also a premium version with a cost. The app saves the account information. Any personal information that a person types into the chatbot may be utilized to train and improve the app but will not be used to build profiles about people, advertise to them, or to sell the information itself, the company said.
Also, the app shares information on a person's account use, not chat details, with vendors and service providers, other businesses and affiliates, the company said.
Patrick Fogarty, the Jericho district's director of technology, said best practices on the use of AI are still coming into focus.
"Our teachers are experimenting with it," said Fogarty, a former English teacher. "We're dipping our toe in the water. … It's scary, but exciting, too."
Students test its uses
Students said they see teachers paying more attention to these apps this school year.
Max Scharf, a Jericho High School junior, said that by the end of the first week of school, the majority of his teachers had discussed ChatGPT in class. Some issued warnings about cutting and pasting essays and answers from the app. Some talked about it as a great study tool, he said.
"It seems like a lot more teachers are aware of it," said Scharf, 16. "To me, I know it can spit out an entire slideshow presentation. But that's not studying. That's not helping you learn."
Scharf said he's already employing ChatGPT as a study tool. He used it to help with practice tests for an academic business competition.
"I went through all the questions I got wrong and put them into ChatGPT, and had it explain them to me," he said. "It was a great studying tool. Instead of having to scout around the internet for explanations, I had it all centered in one place. It was like I was having a conversation with it. It was like a tutor."
But Lourdes Saunders-Blake, a Freeport High School junior, said she believes the apps' negatives outweigh the positives. She's concerned students will come to rely on them, making it tougher for them to think on their own.
"There's value in doing things with trial and error and finding the way that works for you," said Saunders-Blake, 16. "It's not necessarily needed. When you are in high school, you should be learning the foundations yourself."
She said her AP English teacher recently told the class that she did not want students using ChatGPT, and that students need to do their own work.
A teaching tool?
Teachers say the app can help them.
Silva, who teaches technology in Jericho's middle and high school, said he is using ChatGPT to craft new ideas for lesson plans. For instance, he prompted the app to create a lesson plan on camera angles for his video production class.
"It wrote a brilliant lesson plan. It was basically the same as mine, but it had some new things," he said. "I feel like it's my own personal secretary, a sounding board. It allowed my creativity to expand. That's ChatGPT at its best."
Margaux Calemmo, a Garden City high school librarian, said she worked with teachers over the summer on the use of AI in the classroom. For English teachers, she instructed the Gamma AI app to produce a lesson on Shakespeare's treatment of the Moors in his play "Othello."
"It produced a slide presentation very quickly, which had probing, essential questions," she said. She added, "There's more excitement this year to show this as an enhancement. … We want open dialogue, open conversation."
At West Hempstead Secondary School, Principal Joe Pumo said that while staff had touched on ChatGPT last year, he expects much more discussion and experimentation this year.
Pumo said the app is challenging the ways in which teachers assess student achievement. He said he expects teachers to thwart students' temptation to plagiarize from the app by doing more project-based learning, in which students demonstrate their learning in ways beyond the standard tests and essays.
"A teacher may ask students to create a podcast to demonstrate what they've learned, or host a seminar in which they lead the class in a debate on a topic," Pumo said.
For now, if students use a chatbot in their research, they need to document it for the instructor, he said.
West Hempstead senior Kerilee Vargas said she sees the double edge of such technology.
"I think it's cool that we have this kind of technology," said Vargas, 17. "But it can be a detriment. Kids are obviously going to want it to do the work, because they're lazy and don't want to do it themselves."
Looking ahead, Brentwood High School senior Gabriellie Cabral said the future of such AI apps will largely depend on the students themselves and how they use it.
"It could become a bigger problem" if students repeatedly cheat with it, said Cabral, 17. "It depends on the dignity of students, and whether they want to come to school to learn."