What should education look like in a post-ChatGPT world?

Four weeks after Packback announced the release of an AI-generated content detection feature, Packback COO Kelsey Behringer shares her vision for the future of education that is helped, not hindered, by the use of AI technologies

I was a former “bad writer” who favored the quadratic formula and integrals to quite literally any writing assignment. I’m still a bit self-conscious about my writing skills and vocabulary. I finally developed a respect for writing during my first year of teaching when I was required to write about something I was passionate about for a grad school assignment — pedagogy.

All of this to say, I would’ve used the heck out of ChatGPT back in high school and college. I used it yesterday to help write an email subject line. I will use it this weekend for a cocktail recipe.

However, my mild obsession with using ChatGPT doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing my own work or trying to become a better, more confident writer.

I want to propose a world in which generative AI platforms like ChatGPT exist, get better, and students are stronger critical thinkers and writers than they are today despite this new disruptive technology. Maybe even because of it.

But first…

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a large language model developed by OpenAI that utilizes a very entertaining “chat” interface. Think of ChatGPT as incredibly impressive — and human-like — autocomplete. Instead of finishing your google search or predicting the next word in a text message, it can write essays, love notes, emails, and even create recipes. See for yourself:

Very “Black Mirror,” right?

Now, I could have replied to ChatGPT’s answer with “rewrite with at least 500 words”. And then said, “add more metaphors,” followed up with, “make it sound more optimistic,” and so on. I could prompt edit after edit until I felt comfortable with the product — perhaps a short blog post on the potential effects of generative AI in academia 👀

If you’re an instructor that assigns and grades writing assignments, these may be some of your thoughts:

  • “Wow, that’s SO COOL”
  • “The world is ending”
  • “That sounds nothing like a human; I could catch that from a mile away”
  • “My life’s work is futile”

Here’s what I will say — every reaction is valid. Some educators see this as a cure to writer’s block or an equitable learning tool. Others see it as the end of writing assessments as we know them. Yes, this is an incredible tool. Yes, the tool lacks human intelligence and, thus, the ability to be reliably factual. Yes, students will and have been using this to cheat. But, this is not unprecedented.

Remember when the calculator was invented? There was real panic that students moving forward wouldn’t be able to do simple calculations. What was the purpose of times tables if a machine could do it all for you?

What actually happened is that assessments evolved. I think back to my experience in various Calculus and AP science classes; many assessments required the use of a calculator. Back when I taught stoichiometry (think the “math” of chemical reactions), no amount of TI-89 calculators could’ve gotten the majority of my students to ace their first quiz because they struggled to grasp a strong understanding of the underlying concepts. If you give a student a TI-89 without proper training, it’s basically a paperweight. Powerful technology requires training on how to use it.

As a former educator, I can understand the range of reactions, especially those resembling fear. After a lot of conversations, research, and reflection, my feelings have evolved into something more like curiosity, wonder, and excitement.

Our call to action: the authentic assessment

First and foremost, instructors must ensure their assessments are authentic. The pandemic caused harm and disruption, but it also asked instructors to reflect on the intention and impact of student assignments. Instructors had to get creative to make sure their assessments still made sense when a student was no longer confined to a monitored classroom. 2020 was a tenuous year for educators, but some of the modifications to course design and assessment type were stunning — those necessary changes moved faster because of the pandemic.

What we’ve seen ChatGPT do is create some compelling outputs for what I’d call your “recall” or “summarize” writing assignments. I recently showed ChatGPT to a K-12 administrator — we asked ChatGPT to write a 2-page summary of “The Giver”. The administrator stared in awe at her screen as ChatGPT did its thing. The work that was produced would have certainly scored an A. The immediate call to action for educators is to audit their assignments and modify prompts to require true personal reflection and metacognition from students. The beauty of making assignments more authentic is that it should make learning much more fun for everyone.

I want you to think about a writing assignment you completed in your academic journey that you genuinely enjoyed and found yourself wanting to spend time on. For me, this was a reflection on a lesson plan I put in front of my students during my first year of teaching. I was writing about my experiences and my students. What is more authentic than writing about the relationship between content and your real life? The assignments students want to complete and instructors want to grade are authentic. ChatGPT — and other technologies like it — will fail to meet the goals of these types of assignments.

For more ideas on authentic assignments, check out this webinar series I hosted over the last few weeks with rotating panelists, including college professors and administrators.

The path to a harmonious relationship between education and generative AI

As for the future beyond this Spring term, I feel pure elation. Generative AI isn’t going anywhere, and if we approach this technology with curiosity and exploration, we can solve very big problems.

I think about our engineers at Packback that spend hours per day writing and testing code. Much of this work is actually “novice” as far as required skill goes, more so a tedious task than complex problem-solving. What if they could save 10 hours per week by having generative AI write and test code and spend those saved 10 hours building tools that would help high school seniors build executive functioning skills? Or teach them how to review and revise content generated by AI?

A harmonious future with education and generative AI doesn’t start by banning the use of AI tools. It starts by teaching students how to use tools like ChatGPT so they can produce the best possible outputs from the best possible inputs. We then need to teach students how to critically evaluate claims made by AI. But right now, we’re still not fully successful at training students on how to verify information received by other humans. I believe much of our focus as educators — and folks that support education — needs to shift towards teaching students how to verify claims via research and true human critical thinking.

The future of education I want to contribute to looks a bit like this:

First, it focuses on the process of writing. I want to invest my time in building instructional AI that gives students the immediate feedback and coaching they need to succeed. When students feel competent and supported, they want to develop their writing and communication skills through their process.

Second, it requires students to use tools like ChatGPT (or similar programs) in the early stages of their writing process. Students are then forced to hone their verification, research, and revision skills. These skills are often under-taught and thus underdeveloped because students are still stuck at the content creation stage of their assessment due to a lack of writing confidence and support.

Lastly, the future of education is open-minded. It trusts that students want to learn. It gives instructors tools to create meaningful assessments with purpose and authenticity. It utilizes AI to provide novel learning experiences that were once not possible or incredibly difficult to execute.

The future of education is better because we choose to embrace AI and evolve alongside it as AI improves.

Kelsey Behringer is the Chief Operating Officer at Packback. After graduating from Indiana University with a BS in Chemistry, Kelsey spent four years as a High School Chemistry and Physics Teacher. Kelsey was ready for a new challenge with slightly less teenage angst when she eagerly joined Packback in late 2017. Kelsey rapidly grew from an Account Manager to COO by leveraging her experience in education & training, leading retention rates, and love of building. When not in her home office, you can find Kelsey on the Lake Michigan walking path with her rescue pup or in her kitchen happily refusing to use a written recipe.

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