ChatGPT in the Classroom: Reflections on a Year of Generative AI in Schools

It's not going away, so AI needs to be understood and used positively in classrooms.
The nature of generative AI means a teacher's role as a guard and a guide is never more relevant.

Towards the end of 2022, the world started to pay attention to a new Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool called ChatGPT - a type of generative AI language model with potential to impact knowledge accessibility and written content generation. Policy makers and industry called for inquiry and issued reports, while educational institutions raced to release position statements. A primary concern among educators was how to discern genuine student work from artificially generated assignments. Fortunately, the school where I am employed, Australian Christian College Moreton, adopted a balanced approach, encouraging teachers to explore and utilise this new technology platform, but with some caution.

AI is here to stay, and its influence will only grow. Students have very quickly learned to use it, therefore as teachers, we need to know how to respond. Of particular consequence is the need to adapt and change our assessment practices, especially at the senior level.

So how has the generative AI revolution impacted the classroom?

ChatGPT Can Help Organise Student Thinking
I’ve worked this year with a senior student who struggles with organisation and structuring written text. With my blessing, they’ve used ChatGPT to produce outlines and other assistive materials, while also discussing the importance of fact checking. The ‘mental springboard’ ChatGPT and other ICT tools can provide are invaluable classroom resources, providing students a starting place for thinking about an idea and helping them structure writing.

Google Docs ‘History’ to the Rescue?
Not every student interaction has such a happy ending. We recently used the Google document ‘history’ feature to confirm inauthenticity in a student’s writing. This student’s submission had changed quite significantly from previous reviews, and the ‘history’ of the document showed that on the evening before submission an unknown person began to edit the work and whole paragraphs had been copied into the document.

While technology has assisted in each of these examples, it isn’t a silver bullet. First and foremost, should be our relationships with students (and with parents). Teacher judgement must remain at the forefront when integrating AI into the classroom.

How Teachers are using ChatGPT
Teachers are using generative AI to support classwork preparation in creative and resourceful ways. For instance, by asking for questions (and answers) for examples, tests and class work; to draft student reference letters; to come up with simplified explanations of complex concepts; and so much more.

However, it is important that teachers keep some key points in mind when experimenting with generative AI tools. First, the current generative AI tools are good at big-picture ideation, but not very good at details.

Second, teachers must be aware of the specific limitations and affordances of different generative AI tools. Some tools don’t know about world events that have occurred since late 2021; others can find more recent events but aren’t good at summarising these.

Third, and related to this, even when the answers for a question are wildly inaccurate, ChatGPT and other generative AI tools still tend to sound extremely confident in their replies! One commentator has likened ChatGPT to “mansplaining as a service” - it will confidently tell you the answer to any query, even when it has no actual idea.

Fourth, teachers should be mindful of school policies regarding confidentiality and data access. For instance, some Australian universities have advised staff not to input student work to generative AI tools because it may constitute a breach of student privacy by giving away the student’s intellectual property to a third party without consent.

Finally, because generative AI tools are trained to mimic (primarily English language) data taken from the internet, teachers and students need to understand that these tools will reflect the internet’s general tendencies, for instance generating text with US-centric values and grammar, as well as outputting toxic, unhelpful, and untrue information. Despite lots of ongoing research work on this problem, generative AI can, for example, reinforce harmful stereotypes and generate explicit and toxic material, to say nothing of malicious uses of this technology such as ‘deepfakes’ or nonconsensual sexual material.

With generative AI tools being integrated into our internet searching, word processing, and other digital spaces, it’s clear these new technologies are not just another AI ‘hype cycle’. And although beyond the scope of this short article, there are more tools than just text platforms like ChatGPT - for instance DALL-E can create amazing images and artworks from user prompts. Generative AI is certainly here to stay and has changed the face of education forever. Teachers have a pivotal role to play now more than ever in continuing to boldly shepherd students in ICT literacy and responsible uses of these technologies.

Ruth Snoswell is a teacher with 15 years experience in both mainstream and alternate educational settings. Currently, she is a Support Teacher at ACC Moreton, working with Year 10 - 12 students. In addition to her professional pursuits, Ruth is happily married to Jonathan, and together they have raised four grown sons and are also blessed with two grandsons. She loves to spend time with family and friends, cooking and eating vegan meals and walking on the amazing beaches of the Sunshine Coast where she lives.