Dr. Glen Coleman, Naomi Roth, Isabella Iturrate and Tessa Klein
How we got here
By Dr. Glen Coleman
In the beginning of the school year, some students and I met informally to discuss current events and brainstorm possible courses of action in response to those events. These informal meetings eventually led to the creation of the Human Rights Club at River Dell High School. Isabella Iturrate, Naomi Roth and Tessa Klein comprise its leadership. I am the club’s advisor.
In November of 2022, when OpenAI rolled out ChatGPT, the club decided to focus on artificial intelligence (AI) as a human rights issue. What resulted were deep conversations on how AI could change the world—conversations I treasure because of the urgency and wonder we felt. It was like we had stepped into a new epoch.
As a first step to understanding all River Dell students’ views on ChatGPT, Isabella, Naomi and Tessa committed themselves to creating and distributing a survey. It was a big lift for everyone. The leadership had to pitch the idea to the principal. Then they had to create a survey, which required them to research the issues, brainstorm questions and make revisions. And following the distribution and collection of the survey, they had to analyze the results.
Students filled out the survey between April 17 and 21, 2023. It consisted of 16 questions. Of 998 students, 512 responded. Here are some highlights:
- 72% of students knew what ChatGPT was; 28% did not.
- 57% report that they believe ChatGPT will have a positive impact on society; 43% believe it will be harmful.
- Regarding how ChatGPT has been used or discussed in the classroom, students reported that cheating was teachers’ main focus when talking about it. Often, there was no discussion at all.
- Related to cheating, 346 students reported that they did not cheat nor had they been accused of cheating with ChatGPT. Fifteen cheated but were not accused of using it. Three were accused of using ChatGPT but did not; three were accused of using it and did.
Finally, in response to how students would like schools to address ChatGPT, there were two prevailing answers:
- Implement better guidelines, suggestions and protocols on how to use ChatGPT.
- Teach students how to use ChatGPT to advance academic skills.
A note of context: Isabella’s, Naomi’s and Tessa’s analyses are not deep statistical studies of students’ views. Some survey questions were flawed but, upon reflection, provided us with important insights. The survey also gave Isabella, Naomi and Tessa, the opportunity to articulate what they learned from their independent research on ChatGPT, which I think deepens the conversation of what ChatGPT means for students.
When they reported their findings to the principal, he was so impressed he had them present their findings to the entire teaching staff. On June 14, Isabella, Naomi and Tessa made that presentation, and it was powerful. They spoke compellingly on a profound topic for approximately 10 minutes without using notes. After the presentation I received numerous emails from my colleagues.
One teacher wrote, “These girls did an amazing job and I think their message should be shared beyond our community.” Another said, “That presentation was top-notch!”
Our school principal, Brian Pepe, announced his intention to start an AI lab where both students and teachers can learn about AI. It was at that point I suggested that we write an article for the NJEA Review to broaden the conversation about what students think about ChatGPT.
Naomi introduces the overall findings of the survey and its connection to ChatGPT and AI. Isabella discusses why teachers and school districts need to talk about ChatGPT and the AI revolution. Tessa suggests institutional or attitudinal changes that schools can adopt to better assimilate the technology and perhaps allow for improved instruction.
What is ChatGPT? What do students know about it?
By Naomi Roth
Our goal for the schoolwide survey was to assess students’ experiences, opinions and behaviors in relation to ChatGPT. We began the survey by asking students a seemingly simple question: Do you know what ChatGPT is?
Outwardly, the concept of ChatGPT is simple: It’s a large language model capable of modeling human conversation based on data sets from the internet. Basically, it’s a very powerful chatbot.
What complicates this loose definition—and what 28% of students who responded “no” may have been troubled by—is the fact that we cannot explain exactly how it works.
When prompted with a request, ChatGPT synthesizes internal data sets to craft an output, but what scientists have termed “black boxes” make outputs far more difficult to understand. Black boxes, or the inner workings of AI systems, are incomprehensible. In other words, we don’t know what exactly AI platforms, such as ChatGPT, are trained on or why they make certain choices.
For example, “The AI Revolution,” an episode of “60 Minutes,” showed a Google AI program that translated Bengali texts without having been programmed to do so. (Watch at bit.ly/3PFJV1g.) In other words, Google’s AI, Bard, had programmed itself to “understand” Bengali on its own. These kinds of mind-bending occurrences teach us we are at the point of a new technological revolution and cannot afford to remain ignorant of it.
Of the 72% of students who claimed to know what ChatGPT is, what percentage of them saw it as more than a cheating tool? The majority of respondents indicated that their teachers discussed it in the context of cheating or not at all. The cheating conversation is crucial, but it needs to be expanded.
ChatGPT is more than just a threat to our intelligence or the savior of innovation. A two-sided debate is not the answer. We need to see ChatGPT as a revolutionary technology: a device that can produce deepfake videos involving politicians but can also solve some of science’s most vexing problems—seemingly within minutes.
Accepting this middle ground is hard to do. In our survey, we failed to recognize this. We were caught in the binary and asked students whether they thought ChatGPT would have a helpful or harmful impact on society. Students were split: 57% claimed it would be helpful, while 43% claimed it would be harmful.
Serving as a path to their futures, schools and teachers must help students navigate their doubts, fears and hopes. We must learn to embrace the uncertainty and use it to fuel curiosity and exploration, not indifference.
What do we need to know about ChatGPT? A reflection on its impact on work, democracy and relationships.
By Isabella Iturrate
ChatGPT is going to change the way we work, consume and process media, love one another, and put simply, how we live our lives. We can’t tiptoe around the inevitable. ChatGPT needs to be talked about—now.
Our work lives will change. All the work we do or plan to do, will most likely be impacted by ChatGPT/AI if it hasn’t been already. Unlike human intelligence, artificial intelligence doesn’t need a sick day or lunch break, health insurance or sleep.
As AIs get smarter, will they be able to perform any kind of task without any human weakness? The “60 Minutes” episode Naomi mentioned above discusses an artificial intelligence program called AlphaZero. It mastered the game of chess in a single morning—it taught “itself”—and was able to discover moves that humans had yet to consider despite the fact that humans have been playing modern chess for over 500 years. As these kinds of programs continue to advance and spread beyond the game of chess, students like me can’t help but worry that AI will beat us in our own fields.
Our democracy will change. The rapid spread of false self-generating media has already had significant implications for our society. “An AI Spoof Rattles the Market,” a May 22, 2023, New York Times article, explains that the stock market suddenly dropped because an AI falsely claimed the Pentagon had been attacked and showed an image of the building with smoke billowing from it.
Even though experts quickly dismissed the picture, the image spread on social media, causing a panic. The market tumbled for an hour. This is just one small example of ChatGPT’s unexpected impact. So being taught media literacy, how to approach information as a skeptic, and how to properly handle ChatGPT is especially crucial for the next generation.
Most importantly, the way we establish relationships will change drastically. There is a new podcast called “Bot Love,” which discusses the experiences of people who form romantic relationships with AI. Starting a relationship with an AI is frighteningly simple. An AI can give individuals the attention they crave by responding to data sets from the internet to generate the questions that will engage users.
Branching out can be really difficult for teenagers—I speak from personal experience. After being quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be really scary for teens to get out of their comfort zones to make friends. It would be so easy to talk to an AI and bond with it instead of putting yourself out there and risking rejection. Teenagers need to be prepared for the implications that ChatGPT and AI can have on relationships.
ChatGPT will affect our economy, our democracy and our lives, and it is something that needs to be talked about. How exactly should a school go about addressing ChatGPT?
What can we do?
By Tessa Klein
When we surveyed students back in April, we asked them which actions our school should take in order to address the challenges AI presents. We were surprised to find that not only did many students have strong opinions, but they also wanted our school to have a stronger grasp of AI. The top two actions that students wanted the school to take were:
- Offer more instruction on using AI.
- Develop more guidelines around it.
Related to instruction, we think it is important for schools to consider using AI to create a competitive advantage in the job market.
On the one hand, teaching students about AI gives them the resources they need to be successful in their careers. Careers such as computer programming, teaching, law and medicine will all require some knowledge of AI systems. On the other hand, there is a concern that the evolution of AI will eliminate many jobs as we know them today.
By helping students build their knowledge of AI, teachers will ensure that students will be more prepared for the jobs of the future. Additionally, by creating classes and integrating AI into courses, students will also learn to better control and ethically manage AI systems, ultimately using AI to develop an economy and a society that benefits everyone.
Related to guidelines for use, we believe that schools need to allow students to explore this new technology in a safe and protected environment. With feedback from the survey and students’ interests in mind, we think it would be a good first step to create an experimental AI-media-literacy lab. This would give students and teachers the opportunity to learn alongside one another while discovering the ins and outs of the AI revolution.
In a computer lab, students and teachers would be able to experiment with chatbots like ChatGPT, have a deeper understanding of the algorithms AI relies on, explore the effects AI will have on the job market, and follow the debates around the changes AI will bring to our society and our future. Our hope is that teachers and students together can create a set of principles and values that can guide our use of AI.
Ultimately, as AI becomes increasingly integrated into our society, teachers and students should have the right to explore AI in a safe environment that aims to enrich and expand students’ horizons.
A joint statement
We believe the arrival of ChatGPT signals a profound transformation in our world. We want to know what we can do with it to make our lives and the world better. Can we make something with this technology that we’re proud of, whether it’s a student’s project, a teacher’s lesson plan or a school’s operation?
Can we move beyond the good/bad binary when we think of ChatGPT?
Can we use ChatGPT to help students become more competitive in the marketplace?
Can we leverage AI to deepen the bonds of friendship, family and community? If not, how can we create better relationships with technology to promote stronger bonds with humans?
Having deep conversations about AI has the potential to open peoples’ minds. The technological revolution is upon us. We have the opportunity. It’s up to us.
Finally, we want a course of action that’s sustainable. We don’t know what that looks like. The change is so new. At times it overwhelms. Consider these words as an invitation to start the conversation. ChatGPT and AI technology are here to stay. Let’s figure out how to use them to enrich our schools and our lives.
Dr. Glen Coleman has been teaching social studies for the past 26 years. His doctoral dissertation focused on student-centered learning. In 2019, Glen was named an HP Teaching Fellow for innovative instruction. His work has been praised as innovative by two former New Jersey commissioners of education. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Naomi Roth and Isabella Iturrate are seniors at River Dell High School. Tessa Klein is a sophomore.