Saturday, January 7, 2023

Much Ado about ChatGPT: Embracing the Possibilities

I'm chiming in because I do think there is too much ado about ChatGPT. I think there is magnificent possibility in this tool

I teach college freshmen writing classes. You know, those general education classes that students believe they just have to get through so they can get to the good stuff: their major courses.

College faculty have contributed to the perception that ENG101 and ENG102, or whatever your course code, are necessary evils although they are quick to grumble when their juniors and seniors can't write. But that's a different story. Or is it?

I've long thought that we need to redesign ENG101 and ENG102. And I believe so even more fervently in a post-pandemic era of teaching and learning. Many students lost whatever fragile learning skills they had and college can be a very difficult place to learn how to be a learner. I speak from experience.

Just recently administrators at my college shared an article about ChatGPT and some insights. Few of us had experimented with it. It is not benign, but I don't think it is cause for as much hand-wringing as there seems to be.

On the other hand, I teach at the collegiate level and my classes are smaller than the average high school English class. Most of my students mostly want to be where they are even if they don't want to be in my class, so I'm talking now about college writing rather than high school writing.

Quite frankly, I think we can make use of this. We want students to be critical thinkers. We want them to develop and refine the skills of a critical thinker. Now, we may not agree on what it means to be a critical thinker--the internet doesn't. There could be five skills, or maybe there are ten principles. It's confusing depending on the field, but there are some fundamentals upon which most seem to agree. (Oh how I love qualifiers.)



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So analysis, communication, problem-solving, and creativity seem to show up a lot. There are other skills some may want to emphasize depending on their field or discipline, but we could start with this list.

However, the World Economic Forum reported in October 2020 (so the world was still in the middle of a pandemic) that the top skills for 2025 might be as shown in the image to the left. Some of us might argue there is some redundancy, but we might also note the way the World Economic Forum has grouped the skills, which I find interesting.

In this case, analytical thinking and innovation; complex problem-solving; critical thinking and analysis; creativity, originality, and initiative as well as reasoning, problem-solving (let it go), and ideation are part of, well, problem-solving skills.

One might surmise that most of the top skills are necessary for problem-solving. And, if we take a giant step back, most of the critical thinking skills identified in the critical thinking images are, in fact, necessary to solve problems, both small and large, simple and complex. 

Students don't think about managing their time to accommodate work, classes, athletics, homework, and social life as a problem to solve, but time management is a significant problem to solve and is often quite complex. 

Students don't think about completing a school task as a problem to solve, and yet it is.

So whatever we choose to emphasize in our respective versions of ENG101 and ENG102, we all incorporate something about critical thinking and perhaps we need to be more intentional about what that means and how we assist students in recognizing their critical thinking skills and how to develop or refine them.

A colleague of mine and others have offered some suggestions about how to embrace the problem of ChatGPT. You've seen some of these, I'm sure:
  • Require student reflection in their responses so there must be some sort of personal connection (text-to-self)
  • Ensure assignments have some specificity such as including something from specific sources (text-to-text)
  • Have students do some of their work in class and present their work in a portfolio form
I agree with some of this for some classes because I think how an educator responds depends on the content area and depends on the intention of the assignment. 

For me in my ENG102 section this semester, my students will be writing, by hand (!!), in a journal doing a short personal reflection about writing. Think of it as a sort of bell ringer although they may write at the end of class. I will check these periodically, but it's mostly to get them in a habit of reflection. I won't grade this work for grammar or mechanics; it's mostly a participation sort of thing.

I'm going to have my students analyze an AI response to a prompt without telling them it is an AI response. We will have been talking about argument, the rhetorical triangle, cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and analyzing texts along the way. We will have played the believing and doubting games at least once. I think it will be eye-opening for all of us for them to analyze one or more AI responses. What are the strengths and weaknesses? What is unanswered? What isn't included?

After they have written a drafty draft for me, I will invite them to use AI to write a draft. Then they will write a comparison of their work and the AI's work. They will have included, I hope, in-text citations and a Works Cited page whereas, at this point, the AI does not include any references from where or how it gets its information. If they have learned to be responsible skeptics, perhaps they will see some of the potential issues. Although that depends on whether or not they really care.

Given some of the examples I've seen from ChatGPT, I think I may want some students to embrace it as a way to get started. My students often think they hate writing when they don't like the process, they're not confident about grammar or even writing sentences, etc., etc., etc. Or they got turned off of writing because of the kind of writing they did in high school. HEAR ME: I am NOT placing blame on high school teachers because I've done that gig and I know it's even harder to get kids to write in high school.

So maybe we use a sort of portfolio and they begin their work with the AI-generated text and then have to refine it. Then they're brainstorming, if you will, with AI rather than a classmate who may be even less confident about writing than they are.

I think there are similar possibilities for high school students. Look, every student struggles with grammar and mechanics. They struggle with active voice vs passive voice. They struggle with consistent verb tense. They don't know how to use third person. They struggle with formal academic writing because they've written so many personal narratives.

Too many students have to complete performative writing tasks rather than learning how to be a writer at whatever level they may be able to write. Not all of my students are great writers. Many of them are good. And most of them are good enough for what they think they might want to do in the future. Some of them may discover later why writing matters and perhaps they will find ways to build on something that maybe I helped them learn.

I agree with what Sarah Dillard wrote recently in her opinion piece "Schools Must Embrace the Looming Disruption of ChatGPT."
Revising classwork to include ChatGPT could involve students collaborating with the chatbot throughout. In the book review assignment, for example, they could critique ChatGPT’s output and write a reflection on how and why they used the tool and where its capabilities worked and fell short. The key is that the students, rather than ChatGPT, are still in control of the assignment.
ChatGPT has the potential to unlock powerful new learning capabilities. While before, a student could only read other people’s writing, draw conclusions about their techniques and try to apply them to her own work, she can now watch her own thoughts be transformed into prose. This direct translation has the potential to teach students to be better writers.
ChatGPT can summarize complex passages for struggling readers, giving them enough of a toehold to read the original text; rephrase difficult concepts in ways that can help students relate them to their own experiences; and provide a second opinion to students on their written work. With capabilities like these, ChatGPT has the potential to be a tool that finally enables robust personalized learning at scale.

In "The Brilliance and Weirdness of ChatGPT" (Dec 2022) published in The New York Times, Kevin Roose wrote:


Yes, the AI will get "smarter" as it gathers and processes more information. Yes, this is the stuff of Asimov's I, Robot. Yes, there are lessons to be learned and reasons to be concerned and reasons to celebrate.

If we embrace ChatGPT, albeit cautiously, first, we acknowledge the elephant in the room. Second, we can help students develop and refine not only critical thinking skills but help students find ways to better understand the strengths, weaknesses, and unintended consequences of inventions and technological developments.

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