When generative AI chatbots first burst into the consciousness of educators in the past few months, many teachers were quick to dismiss them as a threat to education. They worried chatbots would make it easier for students to cheat, and that students would not learn critical thinking skills if they could get answers to their questions without having to think for themselves.
However, there is a growing body of evidence from students and teachers that suggests that chatbots can actually be a valuable tool for learning. High school English teacher Cherie Shields recently told NY Times reporter Kevin Roose that she assigned her students to use ChatGPT to create an outline for an essay comparing and contrasting two complex short stories. After they had the outline, the students put away their computers and wrote their essays by hand in class.
She said that the technique had not only increased student understanding of the material. It had also taught them how to communicate with AI models and get useful answers from them. Shields used a flipped classroom model where teachers work with students right in the classroom where they are available immediately for questions and coaching. She also was teaching students how to use new technology to delve into content and engage deeply with it.
Teachers can also use chatbots to develop lesson plans. In the same NY Times article, Jon Gold, an eighth-grade history teacher from Providence, RI, told Roose that he has experimented with using a chatbot to produce a class test. He input an article on the Ukraine, for example, and requested ten multiple-choice questions to test comprehension of the article. He said six of the ten questions ChatGPT created were usable for his class. As on his experiences, Gold concluded that chatbots do not endanger student learning as long as teachers combined their use with serious, in-class conversations.
Adapting to new technology in schools takes time. It took around 30 years for personal computers to become pervasive in classrooms, from when Apple developed them for classroom use in the 1980s to when 97% of high school classrooms had computers in 2009. The diffusion of innovation model helps explain this. The model suggests new technologies go through five stages of adoption: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Chatbots are still in the early stages of adoption, and it is likely that it will take some time for them to become widely accepted in schools.
After all, ChatGPT has only been available for less than a full semester. How soon will chatbots become an integral part of classroom learning like personal computers and the internet? That depends on innovative teachers like Shields and Gold. Their experience and example show chatbots can help students to develop critical thinking skills, engage with the material more deeply, and enrich their learning. Oh, yes, and prepare them for the post-school world of ever more sophisticated technology.
Roose, K. (2023). “Don’t Ban ChatGPT in Schools. Teach with It.” The New York Times, January 12, 2023.