As the 2023-24 school year quickly approaches, school districts have begun to confront the reality that artificial intelligence tools are here to stay.
After its launch in late November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT — an artificial intelligence capable of generating text and responding to human input — quickly became the fastest-growing internet service of all time, reaching 100 million users in just two months. Students, teachers and administrators are among them.
According to a March 2023 study of K-12 teachers and students by Impact Research, 51% of teachers reported using the service for their job, including for lesson plans, coming up with creative ideas for classes and building background knowledge.
Of students ages 12-17, 33% reported using ChatGPT for school. A June 2023 Intelligent survey reported similar findings for college students, estimating 30% of college students used the service for their coursework.
In February 2023, OpenAI announced that the previously-free service would now have a premium tier, ChatGPT Plus, with priority access and faster response times. Even so, free research access continues to be available for more casual users.
Access to AI technology has continued to grow in recent months. Microsoft’s $10 billion investment into OpenAI allowed them to incorporate AI large language model — similar to ChatGPT — into its Bing search engine. Now, Bing generates summary answers to search queries, compiled from a number of sources and written by artificial intelligence in real time.
Functionality continues to be added to both the ChatGPT and Bing services, rolling out even more uses for AI. The plugin service through ChatGPT 4 allows users to integrate other services — including a browsing plugin that gives the AI access to information about current events — to accomplish more tasks, such as booking a vacation or comparing prices in online shopping.
Other services, such as DALL-E, can utilize similar technologies to offer a wide range of additional functionalities, including the generation of images and art.
As the uses offered by generative AI continue to grow, school districts and universities face difficult decisions regarding the new tools available to their students.
Local schools vary in their policies toward the new technology.
The University of Wisconsin-River Falls does not have a formal policy regarding the use of AI tools at this time. While the leadership is aware of AI and is monitoring its development, the faculty decide whether its use is permitted in their courses.
Ronald Anderson, assistant professor of management, said many of the tools the university uses involve AI of some kind. Class scheduling software, office software suites like Microsoft Office and everyday search engines use artificial intelligence to function.
ChatGPT and Bing utilize an innovative form of artificial intelligence, known as a large language model.
Simply put, Anderson said LLMs function in a similar way to how human intelligence operates.
For example, when someone wants to learn how to write in a newspaper, humans would start by reading sample articles, looking for formulas and structures for how to present their ideas. As they write, humans receive feedback and correct their errors going forward.
On the other hand, LLMs receive large amounts of data in the form of a training set and through a deep learning model — which is based on how neurons process information in a human brain — the artificial intelligence can output a response.
“The LLM uses the training data to learn statistical relationships governing how sentences and paragraphs are constructed,” Anderson said. “This allows the AI to communicate using the language … in a form a human reader can understand.”
Anderson, a self-described “technology evangelist,” said there are legitimate uses for the tool of generative AI and LLMs. He uses these tools for research and lesson planning.
However, Anderson said he doesn’t trust what they tell him. Large language models, such as ChatGPT, have the potential to “hallucinate” or return a response without a factual basis.
Instead, he uses LLMs to identify trends and create drafts that can be refined and verified using conventional methods.
Anderson said it is on the user to confirm the information they receive. Even if the use of LLMs is permitted or required in a certain activity, “students must take time to check the results from the LLM,” Anderson said.
The School of Business and Economics at UWRF has been incorporating new technologies into its curriculum, including AI. One course, BizTechU for first-year students, covers technologies in the fourth Industrial Revolution. Anderson designed the course to introduce these ideas and how they might shape business and society, so they can be expanded on in future courses.
Large language models are not going anywhere, according to Anderson. Ignoring them and not informing students how to use them may be doing students a disservice.
“Personally, I look forward to working with my colleagues and students as we expand our focus on state-of-the-art technologies in our curriculum,” Anderson said. “I feel AI is one of the tools we can’t afford to ignore.”
Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning David Grambow said the Hudson School District plans to cautiously embrace the new technology.
As with any technology, Grambow believes there are risks, but there is also “great potential in the use of generative AI.” By establishing parameters upfront, the district hopes to leverage its benefits.
“There will always be new and emerging technologies,” he said.
Grambow said OpenAI did not intend ChatGPT to be a “nefarious tool;” instead, he believes there is a potential to do good with the service.
Grambow drew the comparison between ChatGPT and the advent of the handheld calculator.
In 1976, his mother worked in an office supply store and brought back the Spirit of ‘76 Texas Instruments handheld calculator — a commemoration of the bicentennial of the United States.
“I remember the conversation with my older sisters about what a game-changer this is,” Grambow said. “But this doesn’t mean you can cheat. You still have to learn your math facts.”
For him, ChatGPT is the same situation on a much larger scale. According to Grambow, older technologies were just more aligned with the curriculum and the instructional strategies of the time.
“It was easier to embrace because it didn’t seem that far out there,” he said.
The Hudson School District still hopes to embrace this advancement in technology.
At this time, there is no blanket statement regarding the use of generative AI in the classroom. Just like with calculators, it is a tool that can be used unless it is disallowed.
Aside from permitting its use, Grambow is thinking about how to encourage the use of AI and design lesson plans around it to teach new skills.
“As kids get older — and they’re in more advanced classes — and they’ve demonstrated some of the foundational skills, you can start to open up different opportunities,” Grambow said. “No different than having a graphing calculator.”
Grambow envisions a curriculum that teaches students how to use all of their tools, including ChatGPT. For example, Grambow described how an English teacher may be able to incorporate technology in a constructive manner.
“I want your first draft to be generated via ChatGPT,” Grambow said. “But I want you to, each time, refine your question until the response matches sort of what you’re thinking, and then we’ll work on editing.”
Innovative lessons like this encourage critical thinking while still embracing new tools, according to Grambow.
“The one thing we know with absolute certainty is that we don’t know,” he said. “We don’t know what it’s going to be next year. We don’t know what the next new technology is.”
To combat this, Grambow recommends the posture of cautious embrace.
“If we spend too much time resisting it, we’re going to waste our energies,” Grambow said. “As opposed to figuring how to embrace it, so we can learn along with our students.”
The School District of River Falls is not taking a firm stance on artificial intelligence for now.
Directory of Community Education and Communications Jennifer Ames said the district is aware of ChatGPT and AI but are watching and learning at this time.
If approved at the school board meeting on Aug. 21, the district’s upcoming 2023-24 student handbooks will contain references to ChatGPT and AI in sections reviewing academic integrity and plagiarism.
The unapproved handbook defines plagiarism as “taking credit, whether deliberate or not, for another person’s or source’s (print or non-print) ideas or words, works or processes without proper citation or credit.” At the end of the section, it reads, “Using ChatGPT or any A.I.-created work is prohibited as well.”
Director of Academic Services Nate Schurman said the district is in the stage of policy considerations regarding AI.
The district is looking at policies in other districts to see if it needs to or wants to create a policy of its own, Ames said.
New Richmond Supervisor of Communications Madelyn Kohn said staff has no comment regarding artificial intelligence at this time.