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Implications of Generative AI in Education: Big Questions

Is ChatGPT a calculator for the humanities?

Generative AI, specifically tools like ChatGPT, is still somewhat of an enigma in the context of education. The questions that float around tend to come with any new technological advance: How can it help? How will it hinder? How should it be used?

We recently spoke on assessment in the age of generative AI, a major practical question for teachers. In this article, we’re taking it up a notch and looking at a few of those higher-level considerations: how it can help, how it can’t, and whether it can be compared to other tech tools in regards to its impact on education.


ChatGPT is both capable and limited for writing and research

While ChatGPT is an incredible tool, sometimes unsettling in its ability to mimic human writing and comprehension, it also has limits. It can help with many tasks, but may not be able to complete the job from start to finish without human intervention. There’s still work and learning to be done; extended abstract thinking still rests on the shoulders of the student.

ChatGPT can write poetry, prose, and to a specific requested tone. It can adjust in response to additional instructions and answer complex questions. It comes with disclaimers that information is not guaranteed to be correct, and the structures and language it uses can be fairly recogniseable for those who know what they’re looking for.

Our director Stephen recently experimented with using ChatGPT as a tool to overcome writer’s block when doing some research. He found that it took some back-and-forth with the interface to get any valuable ideas from it—asking a general question, pinpointing something of interest and then asking the bot to elaborate on that aspect of the answer for more specifics. Some of the replies he received didn’t make sense, requiring more back-and-forth for clarification. And asking for sources was a bit of a washout: some did not exist; others argued the opposite of what ChatGPT claimed the source said.

“Overall, it pointed me in a direction where I could do some thinking, and it was certainly helpful for that. But it did not generate wholly useable text for my purposes.”

Generative AI: not just a calculator for the humanities

For those having trouble visualising the impact of recent AI tools, a helpful comparison that has been made is to a calculator—perhaps even a graphics calculator.

When these high-tech gadgets came out, with their ability to solve more complex equations, there was concern that maths students would no longer have to think for themselves at all. There’s more to it, though. Brains are still required, but the rote calculating tasks can be done by the calculator, freeing up time and brainpower for higher-level thinking. Those in charge of the curriculum adapted to the change, and people still study mathematics. Level 3 Statistics students will tell you that the tasks that can be delegated to their calculator are the least of their worries!

AI writing tools will likely have a similar effect in literacy-based subjects or those that require writing. Some of the rote writing tasks can be done by the programme, so students can focus on higher-level ideas. As demonstrated by Stephen’s foray into ChatGPT, human brains are still required to direct, organise, and fill in the gaps.

The two concepts are similar—if you squint a bit! But there are nuances to the comparison which certainly bear mentioning. For starters, generative AI is not just taking care of the writing process but also the research. In education the ability to research and draw conclusions is a very important skill, one that may fall by the wayside if students are relying on ChatGPT to research as well as write their answers. 

There’s also the issue of accuracy. ChatGPT itself admits that it cannot guarantee the truth of its output (to quote, “ChatGPT may produce inaccurate information about people, places, or facts”) and, as Stephen found, it is not good at defining its sources. In maths, numbers don’t lie and neither do calculators.

To accept generative AI tools as “calculators for the humanities” is an oversimplification, and could do damage should educators assume it can be integrated into lessons in the same way that calculators have been. In the USA several school districts have already restricted access to or banned the tool on school computers, including New York City Public Schools which is the largest in the country. Closer to home, four Australian states have banned ChatGPT in public schools. Some universities have done the same—notably, France’s Sciences Po. In Aotearoa, there has already been an issue brought to public attention; a group of Massey University students were pulled up for use of ChatGPT in their assessments and were offered amnesty in exchange for confessions.

Educational governing bodies are, in some places, developing guidelines around how AI should be approached and used for safety and ethics. Take a look at the Australian Framework for Generative AI in Schools and this report from the Department for Education in the UK. FutureMakers has a great overview on these frameworks and how they could be used for reference in Aotearoa. Individual institutions have created their own guidelines around the use of AI by students—for example, the University of Auckland instructs students to defer to the Course Director regarding which specific assessments permit the use of generative AI tools.

While banning may not be practical forever, it makes sense to restrict the use of the tool to safeguard students’ learning while curriculums, lessons, and teacher training adapts. OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT has created (paid) software to help teachers (and anyone who wishes to do so) determine whether text is AI-generated, which may be helpful to educators. However, relying on what is essentially a plagiarism checker should not be the sum total of your plan to work around AI. Take a look at our previous blog on assessment in the age of AI for more on how you can apply best practice to accurately assess learning. 

The Think e-Learning team helps educators journeying with incorporating tech into their teaching. We love equipping leaders to guide and nurture their teams as they develop their digital literacy. Get in touch!

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