What Should English Teachers Do about ChatGPT?

By John Edlund

In late November 2022, a company called OpenAI opened public access to an AI called ChatGPT. Those who sign up for an account can ask it questions, give it instructions, and converse with it. The program can do research and write texts in various genres, including essays on any topic imaginable. It can also write and debug computer code. Educators who have tried it are quite impressed with its abilities. Students are already using it to do their homework. How should English teachers respond? Lots of articles have already been written on this question. In general, the advice tends to cluster around four strategies:

  • Design AI-proof assignments
  • Devise better AI detection practices
  • Have students hand write their essays in class
  • Help students use the tool wisely and effectively

Of these, the fourth one is probably the most realistic. The first and second have already proven to be difficult, and ChatGPT is not even the most sophisticated AI out there. The third is a big step against the social trend. It may be useful in particular situations, but it is a denial of technological progress rather than an embracing of it, and most students will see it as old-fashioned and backward. Students are going to use the available tools, whatever we say.

The real question, however, is “Why are we teaching the skills we teach?” Here is OpenAI’s mission statement:

OpenAI’s mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI)—by which we mean highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work—benefits all of humanity.

That is pretty tricky. Their mission is to benefit humanity by creating systems that outperform humans in “most economically valuable work.” If they succeed, humans would have only non-economically valuable work to do. Or perhaps no work at all. What kind of world would this be?

We often tell students that they need critical reading, writing, and thinking skills for college and career success. What if that is no longer true? What if the AIs are doing all of the intellectual work? The problem then is not about detecting whether or not students are doing the work themselves. It is about motivating them to learn to do things that may have no future instrumental value, at least from their point of view.

Humanity has had discussions like this ever since Plato questioned the effect of literacy on memory in the Phaedrus. With every technology that extends or replaces human abilities something is gained but something is lost. Calculators, word processors, spell check, grammar check, copy and paste, search engines, and many other technologies have been controversial for educators because they streamlined and simplified  difficult tasks that teachers labored to teach. It was argued that if we became reliant on these technologies, we would no longer be able to do them without the crutch of the electronic tool. The result? We became reliant. And moved on.

But is it different this time? These previous technologies tended to make humans more productive. ChatGPT’s creators, by expressing their mission as creating systems that “outperform humans at most economically valuable work,” seem to be intent on replacing humans rather than augmenting their abilities. Will this lead to some sort of Brave New World in which humans enjoy endless leisure watching TikTok videos while machines do all the work? This seems unlikely.

For now, it seems to me that the most useful and relevant move would be to assign ChatGPT. Have students submit a prompt to the AI and discuss the results. What did it do? What did it get right? What did it get wrong? What can you learn from what it did?

I have a series of posts on my Teaching Text Rhetorically blog that begins with “What Do Writing Courses Do?” I propose a “Writing Matrix” and then in subsequent posts I extend the matrix. It ends with “Writing Matrix Extension 2.”  I used these posts when I was helping new Teaching Associates design their initial courses. I think that whatever we do in response to ChatGPT and AIs to come, we need to keep in mind what we are trying to achieve in our courses. This matrix is a good starting point. But we also need to sell students on the idea that these abilities are important, whatever the AI can do.

A caveat: I was put off by the strategies that OpenAI used in the sign-up process. First it asked for my email and a password. It used a CAPTCHA to determine whether or not I was a bot. Then it sent an email verification to my email account. So far this is typical practice and I didn’t have to give it too much information. However, when I clicked the verification link it asked for my first and last name. When I submitted that it asked for my phone number. I bailed at that point. If I am going to sign up for a service, I think it should be clear from the beginning what information they are going to require.

John Edlund is Professor Emeritus in English at Cal Poly Pomona, now retired. He has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California and has been teaching composition, literature, and rhetoric for more than 40 years. He founded and directed two University Writing Centers, one at Cal State L.A. and one at Cal Poly Pomona. He also chaired the ERWC task force and later the steering committee from 2003 to 2018.

Will AI Make English Teachers Obsolete? A Conversation with ChatGPT

By Tamara Tate, Daniel Ritchie, ChatGPT, & Mark Warschauer

Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on the blog for the WRITE Center at UC Irvine and has been republished with its authors’ permission (although we didn’t actually ask ChatGPT). See the original post here.

Headlines scream “The End of High-School English” — social media is filled with examples of what ChatGPT can produce using AI.  What does it mean for educators? To address this question, we asked ChatGPT itself to write a blog post for high school English teachers. We present ChatGPT’s response as a dialogue, with our own comments italicized in-between. Bold text face was added by us for readability. So, will ChatGDP make English Teachers obsolete? Let’s hear from ChatGDP itself.​

[ChatGPT] As a high school English teacher, you may have heard about ChatGPT, the powerful language model trained by OpenAI that can generate text based on prompts. While ChatGPT offers many potential opportunities for enhancing the teaching and learning of English in high school, it also presents some challenges that teachers should be aware of.

Though many people have heard of ChatGPT, they may not know how it functions. ChatGPT and tools like it are based on large language models (LLM), machine learning algorithms that recognizepredictsummarize, and generate text on the basis of an enormous corpus of previously written texts**. The tool will generate text based on a prompt from the user. Researchers note, “despite the simplicity of the interface, prior models have demonstrated proficiency at a wide variety of tasks—from storytelling to code synthesis and email auto-completion. Such applications are often powered by models trained for a particular purpose, such as autocompletion, or neutralizing bias***.”  

The new LLMs have the ability to perform tasks that they have not been specifically trained for, making them flexible and more economical than previous tools which required highly specific training.  The writing corpus is based on historical works and writing done on the Internet that have been gathered to provide the algorithm with millions of examples of language.

[ChatGPT] One of the main challenges that ChatGPT poses for high school English teaching is the potential for plagiarism. With ChatGPT’s ability to generate text based on prompts, some students may be tempted to use it to produce essays and other written assignments without doing the work themselves. This can be a serious problem, as plagiarism can damage a student’s academic reputation and result in serious consequences, such as failing a course or being expelled from school.​ To combat the potential for plagiarism, teachers can take a number of steps. For example, you can educate your students about the dangers of plagiarism and the importance of doing their own work. You can also use plagiarism detection software to check for copied text in student assignments. Additionally, you can require students to submit rough drafts and outlines of their work, which can make it more difficult for them to use ChatGPT to produce complete essays without doing the work themselves.

The issue of ChatGPT and plagiarism is an important consideration, and the AI pointed out some good ways to tackle this but some suggestions seem off the mark to us. Current versions of plagiarism detection software are unlikely to do any good in detecting original texts created by ChatGPT, though attempts are underway to “watermark” texts created by the software. In the meantime, we suspect that some teachers will instead assign more in-class writing so they can monitor student work. Another strategy is requiring students to cite specific types of sources, as ChatGPT is not (yet) good at that.

[ChatGPT] Another challenge that ChatGPT poses for high school English teaching is the potential for students to become overly reliant on the technology. While ChatGPT can be a valuable tool for helping students generate ideas and structure their thoughts, it’s important for students to develop their own writing skills and ability to think critically. To prevent students from becoming overly reliant on ChatGPT, teachers can encourage them to use the tool as a starting point, rather than a substitute for their own writing. For example, you can ask students to use ChatGPT to generate a list of possible ideas for an essay, but then require them to select one of those ideas and write an essay based on their own knowledge and understanding.

As much as we may want to keep these tools away from students, the cat is out of the bag. Just like calculators, which are no longer banned in advanced math instruction, we believe that students have to be taught to understand AI communication tools’ functions, affordances, and biases. We should teach students how to find and access AI tools that can assist with writing tasks; how to use expert prompting strategies with these tools to yield the maximally beneficial information; and how to incorporate AI-provided material into their writing in ways that are both effective and ethical. Researchers and educators will need to create guidelines for future use.

[ChatGPT] One potential opportunity that ChatGPT offers for high school English teaching is the ability to provide students with personalized feedback on their writing. By using ChatGPT to generate detailed feedback on student work, teachers can help students improve their writing skills and better understand the requirements of an assignment. This can be particularly useful for teachers who have large classes and may not have the time to provide individualized feedback on every student’s work. However, it’s important for teachers to carefully evaluate the feedback that ChatGPT provides, and to consider whether it is appropriate for the specific student and assignment.

We have to acknowledge the capacity for Chat GDP  to provide timely formative feedback on writing. If any teachers doubt this, just go over to ChatGPT and give the prompt “Please provide feedback from a teacher to a high school student who submitted this essay” [and paste in a sample essay]. You may be startled by the result. You can also include criteria for ChatGDP to use, such as those found in writing rubrics. For now, we have no suggestions to teachers as to how to make use of this capacity, but we just want to provide the same warning we offer to students; any text produced by ChatGPT may well be flawed or biased, and should thus be reviewed and edited before being used!

[ChatGPT] Another potential opportunity for using ChatGPT in high school English teaching is for at-home writing assignments. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, many students are learning remotely and may not have access to the same resources and support that they would have in a traditional classroom. ChatGPT can be a valuable tool for these students, as it can help them generate ideas and structure their thoughts, even when they are not in the classroom. However, teachers should be careful to monitor students’ use of ChatGPT and ensure that they are using it in a way that supports their learning, rather than replacing it.

We would argue that ChatGPT is probably less helpful, rather than more helpful, during remote learning, because there may be fewer opportunities for teachers to monitor and support students’ ethical and effective uses of it outside the classroom walls. But we agree with the caveat in your last sentence!

[ChatGPT] In conclusion, ChatGPT offers many potential opportunities for enhancing the teaching and learning of English in high school. However, it also presents some challenges that teachers should be aware of, such as the potential for plagiarism and the risk of students becoming overly reliant on the technology. By carefully considering these challenges and opportunities, teachers can use ChatGPT to support the success of their students and improve the quality of education in high school English classes.

ChatGPT, nice summary, but, and please don’t take this wrong; it’s a little formulaic. If we were teaching high school English, we might challenge our students to improve this conclusion, and indeed this final paragraph. Which raises an excellent point. Having students critique and edit ChatGPT output can be an important instructional activity in the classroom, just like having students critique and edit Google translate output has become an essential activity in foreign language translation instruction.

We know that you may not always be here for us, ChatGPT, and we doubt that you will always be available for free. But whatever happens to you, we are certain that large language models are only going to proliferate. So, moving forward, it is crucial to think about the opportunities and challenges these tools present. Like the calculator, they will be here for better or worse. It is important to remember that we, as educators, have some control over whether “better” or “worse” will be more prominent.

* Tate, Ritchie, and Warschauer are affiliated with the University of California, Irvine. ChatGPT is affiliated with OpenAI.

** Okerlund, J., Klasky, E., Middha, A., Kim, S., Rosenfeld, H., Kleinman, M., & Parthasarathy, S. (April 2022).  What’s in the chatterbox? Large Language models, why they matter, and what we should do about them.  University of Michigan Technology Assessment Project. 

*** Yuan, A., Coenen, A., Reif, E., & Ippolito, D. Wordcraft: Story writing with large language models. IUI ’22: 27th International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces, Helsinki, Finland, March 2022

Leveraging Digital Tools for Teaching ERWC: Sneak Preview!

Editor’s Note: This month we’re featuring previews of sessions from California State University’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference. Author and teacher Jen Roberts is presenting June 21 in Southern California and June 27 in Northern California.

By Jen Roberts

Do you remember how much fun it is to get to talk about teaching and learning with other teachers? In person? I had really genuinely forgotten how fantastic it is to get to be in a room with people who also care passionately about literacy education. The CATE conference in February of 2022 reawakened that spark for me and motivated me to submit sessions for not one, but two locations for this year’s ERWC Literacy Conference. I’ll be in Pomona and San Jose talking about leveraging digital tools, and I can’t wait.

The other night I began the more detailed planning for my session. I started by looking back at what I presented in 2019. Things are so different now. My perspective has shifted with regard to digital tools. In 2019 I was a supplicant, humbly displaying various digital tools and trying to make a gentle argument for adding some of them to your ERWC courses.

In 2022 I’m not making an argument. That would be preaching to the choir. You are already using digital tools. You’ve taught online, hybrid, hyflex, synchronously, and asynchronously. You’ve adapted, assisted, blended, designed, differentiated, implemented, flipped, personalized, planned, and transformed. You know the tools you use well, and you know that there are more out there to learn about. And, you now understand how effective many of them can be for supporting literacy instruction. You’ve built a digital version of your course, and now you want to make it even better.

So, let’s put our heads together, literally, in person. I’ll bring you everything I learned about teaching ERWC 3.0 in my Chromebook classroom with Canvas and Google, and a bunch of other useful tools. You bring your experience, successes, and questions. We will learn from each other, pool our resources, and go further together.

Jen Roberts is a National Board Certified high school English teacher. She has been teaching with 1:1 laptops for her students since 2008 and is the co-author of Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning. She tweets @JenRoberts1 and blogs at LitandTech.com. You can watch Jen’s webinar “Tools and Strategies for Moving ERWC Online” here.