ChatGPT and AI: profound implications and exciting opportunities for schools
In this blog, Darren Coxon, COO of Britus Education, discusses the rise of ChatGPT and AI tools, and their implications for education. Ahead of the release of his book on the subject, Darren also explores some of the ways new technology can provide exciting opportunities for learners and educators alike.
Artificial Intelligence has been hovering on the edges of education since the invention of the PLATO system more than fifty years ago. However, until only a few months back, it had been paid comparatively little attention. Though it’s true that adaptive AI has been used for a while to help us craft online learning pathways, the technology sits in the background and, as a result, has been largely ignored. It was only when ChatGPT blasted onto the scene at the back end of 2022 that we all suddenly stood up and took notice.
But what does this brave new AI world mean for schools, and how best can we prepare for the changes to come? Those who believe AI will have little impact and that they can continue as before are in for a rude awakening, as generative AI (most commonly seen in apps like ChatGPT) is set to radically disrupt teaching and learning at every level.
What is ChatGPT?
We’ve all seen the headlines, forewarning that ChatGPT will allow students to cheat on their essays, make us all stupid and lazy, and that AI is set to destroy us as soon as its intelligence surpasses ours. However, as well as being based on a doomer narrative that isn’t hard to debunk, speculative stories deflect attention away from the more pressing issue we need to be talking about, namely, how can we use AI to give teachers and students a competitive advantage? How can we use it to give ourselves more time to do what matters in our schools, and to ensure our students are as well supported as they can possibly be? For make no mistake about it, the already well-worn phrase ‘AI won’t take your job, but a person using AI will’ has a grain of truth in it. Maybe not today, maybe not even next year, but soon enough, those teachers and students who have mastered the ‘dark arts’ of AI prompting and workflows will be at a significant advantage to their non-AI-augmented peers.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. ChatGPT is known as a large language model (LLM), or generative AI. It’s trained on vast amounts of text data (most of the internet before September 2021) and uses its training to generate new text based on a user prompt. It is, in essence, a prediction machine, generating the next word or mark of punctuation in a sentence based on its pre-training and the prompt you input. It’s not ‘intelligent’ in the way we might define the word, and many critics have questioned AI as being the correct term at all (fun fact: it was coined back in 1956). There are other types of AI, such as the diffusion model we see in text-to-image AI (which is trained on images paired with textual descriptions and creates original visual responses based on a text prompt), but whilst they are increasingly sophisticated, they haven’t yet garnered nearly as much attention as ChatGPT.
Though we can’t yet officially say that these models are ‘intelligent’ in the human sense of the word, what we have already seen, since Alpha Zero taught itself to beat a world champion Go player from a zero-knowledge base in 24 hours, is that these models are beginning to self-learn. In a more recent test, Open AI created a virtual hide-and-seek game between four AI ‘agents’, giving them no instruction and allowing them to work out the rules for themselves. Not only did they do this, but, in time, they began to operate outside the laws of physics in their desire to win the game. We have also seen LLMs learn an entirely new language, having only been given a snippet of the language initially. What’s most remarkable is that the AI we have now is the worst AI we will know in our lifetime. It will only get faster and smarter. We can either rail against this and wish for some halcyon pre-AI past, or we can look it squarely in the face and work out how best we can use it for our own and our students’ benefit.
How will AI impact education?
The impact AI will soon have on education is immense. Imagine every student having their own AI mentor that they can call on at any time to support their learning. This mentor could help them through any problem they might have, whether it be a concept they find difficult to understand or a skill they are trying to master. Rather than give them the answer, the AI can gently and kindly guide them through to the endpoint, framing the conversation in such a way that they call on prior learning when understanding something new. Compare this to the teacher who has thirty children in their class, and who simply cannot give this level of one-to-one guidance to every child, regardless of how much they might like to. We’re already seeing generative AI deployed in this way at scale: Khan Academy has the AI writing coach ‘Khanmigo’.
Whilst the notion of bespoke AI mentors for every student in every subject may be a little way off, there are ways you can use ChatGPT (and its text-to-image cousins Midjourney and Stable Diffusion) today. Most useful AI apps are free, the learning curve is relatively gentle, and the results are instant. At the British International School of Tunis (BIST), the school at which I’m currently working, teachers are using ChatGPT to support schemes of work and lesson planning, and finding it saves them considerable time and helps generate interesting new ideas when they’re exploring topics with students for the first time. It’s excellent for the brainstorming stage of any project, whether this be structuring a scheme of work, a lesson starter, or novel forms of assessment. I use ChatGPT as a research assistant, ideas generator and to dig more deeply into a topic. What I don’t do is allow it to write anything for me that I then present to others. As a writer, I want my words to be my own, even if, at the ideas stage, I’ve bounced assumptions and theses off an AI assistant.
In one of my recent EducAIte Podcasts, Dr Nick Jackson (Director of Digital Technology at Scotch College Adelaide), shared a story in which year-one children created Midjourney text-to-image prompts describing mythical aboriginal creatures, then watched as their prompts magically turned into images. ‘Their faces when the images were appearing - you couldn’t put a price on it!’ he told me. This is a wonderful way to teach literacy, as the generation of an AI image can lend itself to interesting conversations around the precise use of descriptive language. There is also that ‘wow’ moment when children first see these unique images, similar to how I remember photographic prints being developed in the darkroom.
The immediacy of these AI generations, whether it’s ChatGPT writing personalised stories for children so that they can illustrate them, or Midjourney creating magical worlds from prompts, is an excellent hook into learning (at least while there is still novelty value).
I recently wrote a story with my seven-year-old son, which featured him and his sister fighting dragons. His ideas and storyline were ChatGPT’s output. He even told me the prompts to create the images he wanted in the story. The result was a fully illustrated storybook created in partnership between an AI and a seven-year-old. It was fascinating to watch his engagement go through the roof as he created this entirely new world.
It’s not only in the classroom that AI can help. For school leaders, ChatGPT has some excellent admin applications. I’ve used it to write job descriptions, person specifications and policy drafts (including an excellent AI use policy which used as its foundation a recent European Commission policy on AI ethical use). It wrote me three comprehensive surveys for staff, students and parents, analysed the data, then drafted key actions that were fed into the school development plan. Pre-AI, this would have taken me days to do. I did it in around one hour - and that included writing the surveys in the first place. It’s not only the time-saving elements: ChatGPT was able to spot patterns in the data that I might have missed, comparing the three sets of surveys to create outputs that have been genuinely useful in my school’s drive towards improvement. All done in less time than it would have taken me to write one survey.
Of course, it’s not yet a universal panacea: its more creative output tends towards the bland and is still occasionally prone to errors. However, providing the user knows how to feed in the right information to start with, then it can both save time and provide insights that might not have otherwise been gained through human endeavour alone. I’ve also heard concerns around data privacy, but, to date, I have not inputted a single confidential item into any AI. Even the survey data was completely anonymised, and any JDs or policy drafts are generic in nature. You just have to be mindful of what you input.
What are the dangers of bringing AI like ChatGPT into schools?
Right now, I would say not many. It’s all very low stakes at the moment as ChatGPT is only a few months old. There is nothing wrong with giving staff a simple demonstration and letting them experiment and discover for themselves how AI can support them in their role, before even considering bringing it into the classroom. We’re only now doing that at BIST, having spent the first few months allowing staff to use it in any way they wished. It’s interesting to see how many have already brought it into their teaching, from enabling students to draft presentations that they then need to adapt and present attractively, to creating imaginary worlds as a springboard for creative writing. There has been no mandate for and certainly no expectation of a certain output or added value. We don’t really know enough about generative AI to be able to quantify it in this way just yet.
Arguably though, the principal danger lies in ignoring AI, and seeing it as a sideshow or irrelevance. It’s already grabbing the interest of your students and many of your staff, and parents are expressing their concerns in online forums and social media about how it might impact learning. We can’t, therefore, ignore it. I’d say we have a moral obligation to learn as much as we can as quickly as possible, as it’s accelerating at a rapid pace and we’re liable to get left behind unless we’re on the front foot.
There can be no doubt that the future will be driven by AI, and we can either look on as observers, or we can take a proactive approach, not forgetting to get our students involved in helping us, as nowadays their skills far exceed ours across most digital competencies.
Further resources to help you prepare for AI use in schools
The National College is constantly expanding its award-winning resources to help leaders, teachers and practitioners understand and prepare for change in an ever-evolving education sector, including the introduction of AI in their setting.
A membership with The National College can help keep your whole workforce up to date with education policy, practice and research. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.