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Column: Artificial Intelligence is here – what do educators need to know?

Does ChatGPT have a place in classrooms?
Tracy Sherlock crop
Tracy Sherlock writes about education, parenting and social issues in her columns at the Richmond News.

Have you heard about ChatGPT? It’s an artificial intelligence software with some mind-blowing capabilities. The testing version is free, online and available to anyone. All you have to do is ask it a question and it will answer.

Here’s an example question provided by the software: “Explain quantum computing in simple terms.”

Here’s the answer: “Quantum computing is a method of performing calculations using quantum-mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement. In classical computing, information is processed using bits, which are represented by either 0 or 1. In quantum computing, information is processed using quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in multiple states simultaneously. This property allows quantum computers to perform certain types of calculations much faster than traditional computers. However, it also makes them more difficult to build and control.”

I tried a question of my own: “Explain the difference between journalism and public relations.”

In less than 10 seconds, here’s what I got back: “Journalism is the practice of investigating and reporting on events, issues, and trends in order to inform the public. Journalists typically work for news organizations such as newspapers, television stations, and online news outlets, and they are expected to provide objective and unbiased coverage of the stories they report on.

Public relations, on the other hand, involves managing the reputation and image of a person, organization, or brand. Public relations practitioners work to shape and control the message that is communicated to the public about their clients. They may write press releases, organize events, or work to influence media coverage in a way that is favorable to their clients.

In short, journalism is about discovering the truth and reporting it to the public, while public relations is about managing the image and reputation of an organization or individual.”

Not too shabby.

The program even allows users to ask follow-up questions and refine the answers. Apparently, it can write essays, solve math problems and even write computer code.

So, what does this mean for educators?

I teach journalism at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and I recently had an experience with some of my students that is informative. Knowing that such software exists, I wanted to create at least one assignment during the term for which students could not use the Internet. I know this is somewhat problematic, given they will have access to the Internet in real life outside of university, but, just for this one assignment, I wanted to make sure they couldn’t use Artificial Intelligence.

The classroom I teach in is a computer lab, where every student has access to a computer and the Internet. I’m not aware of any way to cut off the Internet connection in the classroom, though I do plan to investigate that.

For now, if they use the computers, they have access to the internet. So, I began planning a hand-written, in-class assignment to assess certain skills that would be done without using a computer. When I told the students, they were not happy. Several of them approached me to say they would not be able to complete a hand-written assignment for various reasons, ranging from physical ailments, to learning disabilities to illegible handwriting. I backed off and I’m still working on creating an AI-proof assignment that will allow for the use of computers.

However, my experience contains a grain of truth for our education system. Even though we have computers, there are still going to be times when students need to rely on their handwriting, and by that, I don’t necessarily mean cursive writing. At the very least, students need to be proficient enough at communicating their thoughts in writing that isn’t done on a computer, even if it is just basic printing.

There’s a lesson there, for those who teach our youngsters. In the same way, we can’t predict when or if printing or handwriting may be needed in life, the same is true of basic math, reading comprehension, and learning how to write an essay or a creative story. Those skills are critical to nearly everything in modern life and it may be a surprising circumstance — like a present-day journalism class in a computer lab — that reveals their worth. We cannot give up on teaching our youngsters the basics, no matter how dull and pointless it may sometimes seem.

But, as always, the most important skill to teach is critical thinking. That’s a competence we will all have to rely on as we navigate this new world filled with artificial intelligence, some of which is designed to manipulate us. In light of that, not only will I expect my students to do an assignment without an internet connection, but I’m also going to demonstrate how ChatGPT works and have them analyze the shortcomings, ethics and potential biases of machine-generated writing.  

Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist who writes about education and social issues. Read her blog or email her tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.