Could an AI bot be writing your students’ homework? |Tes

There is plenty for teachers to look out for when marking students’ homework. Like, how far has the child met the assessment objectives? Have they made progress since last time? Perhaps, even, is it clear that the work has not been copied and pasted from Wikipedia?

But now, there’s something new to consider: has this piece of work been written by an AI bot?

Last week, a new chatbot, ChatGPT, was released by Elon Musk’s tech firm OpenAI, and already, concerns are being raised about its use in education. 

So how does ChatGPT work, and what are the implications for the classroom?

ChatGPT goes way beyond being simply a “chatbot”, says Mike Sharples, an emeritus professor of educational technology in the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University and author of Story Machines: How Computers Have Become Creative Writers

“It can not only answer queries, but write and revise essays, design lesson plans and summarise scientific papers,” he says. “It’s the herald of a new type of universal language tool – a writer’s assistant – that will be taken up not only by professional writers, but by students and teachers.”

Put simply, you type a question into the text box, for example: “How many wives did Henry VIII have?”, and ChatGPT responds with the answer. You can also ask it to write a set number of words or in a particular format (for example, an essay or even a rap). 

Chat GPT is capable, then, of writing a student’s homework for them. However, there are conditions: the question must be knowledge-based (not reflective), and they shouldn’t necessarily rely on the accuracy of the answer.

“AI ‘language models’ have a fatal flaw – they are superb wordsmiths, but they have no understanding of how the world works,” says Sharples. “As a consequence, even the most recent versions come up with some absurd answers. They are also amoral – they have no human qualms about making up research evidence and inventing academic references.”

He highlights a couple of examples from Twitter:


Given its limitations, then, should teachers ban the use of ChatGPT, and be vigilant for any homework that doesn’t appear quite right?

Vigilance around cheating is important – but despite the flaws in the technology, students are already using AI to do their homework, says Stephen Heppell, the Felipe Segovia chair of learning innovation at Universidad Camilo José Cela in Madrid.

“The knowledge essay is already under siege from plagiarism and from ubiquitous essay writing services,” he says.

Therefore, he suggests that teachers use ChatGPT to their advantage, while ensuring that students know they can’t rely on such tools intrinsically. 

“If the fresh homework task is to [use ChatGPT to] generate two alternative essays, using contrasting initial inputs, and to evaluate them for veracity or insight, perhaps as a group activity, then that is a useful task preparing children for the world they live in,” he says. 

Sharples agrees that teachers can harness this new chatbot for good.

“In general, employing AI could help students to focus on the higher level aspect of writing, such as argument, structure and accuracy, while leaving the AI to manage the style, grammar and spelling. Of course, there’s still a need for students to learn the basics of writing, and to have this tested in invigilated exams,” he adds. 

He suggests using ChatGPT as a “critical friend” when writing an essay, to point out flaws and limitations, and as an opponent in a discussion, to help students develop their skills in argumentation.

“ChatGPT could also be used to assist creative writing by continuing a story, perhaps taking it in an unexpected direction – to help students see that there’s more than one way to progress a story,” he says. 

“In the classroom, teachers could employ AI to write multiple versions of an essay topic, then ask each student to write an essay that critiques and integrates the AI-generated ideas, or each student could write an AI-assisted assignment, then check and revisit it.” 

There could be benefits for teachers, too: as Sharples highlighted, ChatGPT can also generate lesson plans. However, he issues caution. 

“As with any other powerful tool, it should be used wisely and carefully. Teachers are well-trained professionals. They know what a good lesson plan looks like. So, they might use ChatGPT as an aid to write a first draft of a lesson plan, or get ideas for improving one they have already devised, or as a respondent to bounce ideas off,” says Sharples. 

“The key is control. The teacher has to understand the scope and the limitations of new AI technology, be able to control when and how to use it, and have the final say over any result.”

There’s clearly the potential for teachers to use ChatGPT in positive ways, then. But not everyone is totally convinced.

Rebecca Mace, a former teacher who specialises in digital pedagogy and an education lecturer at both the University of West London and University College London, has some concerns about allowing the use of ChatGPT in education. 

“We’ve all had dealings with frustrating chatbots when banking and there is always the option to be referred to a higher power: a person. I question whether this would ultimately end up being the teacher, which could mean that it adds a layer of being ‘on call’ for staff,” she says. 

“It could also encourage learned helplessness, because pupils can just ask a bot immediately rather than go through and problem solve. At the moment, many teachers field emails regarding homework so while this could potentially help that, it isn’t exactly changing the pupil behaviour. Addressing this would be more productive.”

However, Mace does see advantages, too, particularly when it comes to inclusivity. 

“It could increase access to learning for neurodiverse pupils. If it’s a verbal chatbot, it removes the element of reading, which can be complicated for some. This can also help those who have English as a second language, as there can be disparity between their spoken English and their written English. Therefore listening to responses to verbal questions can widen access.”

Heppell agrees. “Some older teachers will remember the few wealthy families with their encyclopaedias, and then the equity leap when CDs and the internet allowed that referring power to almost anyone,” he says. “ChatGPT and the like have the potential to be one more welcome step along the inclusion and equity pathway.”

He, therefore, urges both teachers and policymakers to see this kind of technology as an added benefit for the classroom, rather than something to ban the use of.

“Chat GPT is a wonderful thing for education. Tools which allow our children to be better learners are always to be welcomed,” he says. “But we have seen in the past that some in education fight a rearguard action to ban new technology – as they once did with calculators, ballpoint pens, slide rules, and so on, rather than thinking about what new opportunities lie ahead.”

Going forward, then, some might question ChatGPT’s place in the classroom – and they’d be right to be cautious. However, others may see it as inevitable: if students are already using it, it could be worth trying to harness those uses for good. 

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