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Fauquier educators make the case for using artificial intelligence in classrooms

Hunt Lyman

Hunt Lyman, Hill School's academic dean and the seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher, works with his students during class. 

When Hunt Lyman started teaching middle school English in 1984, calculators were the most controversial technology introduced in schools.

Nearly four decades later, Lyman, who works at The Hill School in Middleburg, said teachers have had to learn how to incorporate new technology, such as computers, cell phones, the internet and Google, into the classroom every few years.

But now educators, including private and public school teachers in Fauquier County, are faced with a new technology that has the potential to change classroom dynamics again: artificial intelligence.

During a faculty presentation at the school's Sheila Johnston Performing Arts Center on Jan. 16, Lyman said teachers have always found a way to adapt to the influx of new technology, and students continue to learn valuable skills with the help of machines and computer programs. He is currently the school's K-8 academic dean and English teacher for grades seven and eight.

For example, during the pandemic, Lyman said teachers quickly learned to use technology such as Zoom to continue teaching virtually.

“Nobody here, including me, knew how to run a Zoom meeting, and then, within a couple of weeks, everybody did," Lyman said. "And some of the things I ended up putting online, I realized it's better online, and then some stuff I've gone back to paper for."

Lyman argued that educators should have a similar mentality regarding AI, including Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, commonly known as ChatGPT, launched in November 2022 by an artificial intelligence research laboratory based in San Francisco called OpenAI.

"It's easy to forget the degree to which computers have really changed our lives," Lyman said. "When we started accepting typed work from students...for a long time, teachers said, 'Well, no, you really don't need to type and probably shouldn't type, you should do it by hand...' and almost inevitably now we're at a stage where...everybody types."

How ChatGPT works

Like with other chatbots, ChatGPT uses language processing software to simulate human conversation. Chatbots have become common in the business world, and most people who have contacted a large corporation by dialing a customer service number or using an online chat feature have probably interacted with  one.

But the difference is these chatbots are trained to generate answers about a business’s products and services. ChatGPT, on the other hand, has access to a much broader dataset of public information and can generate responses to questions on almost any topic. Many have used it to compose music, write original compositions, debug computer programs and solve math equations. Some people have even reported that it provided them with emotional support.

But the technology’s ability to help students cheat has garnered the most attention. Most notably, students from grade school to college have reported using the program to write their essays for them. When teachers have tried using Internet-based plagiarism detection software, such as Turnitin, the work produced by ChatGPT does not register as plagiarized.

“That’s because it’s not plagiarized,” Lyman said, speaking to a room full of teachers and administrators. “It's not going to the web. It's producing the work itself. It doesn't exist anywhere.”

Lyman demonstrated ChatGPT’s capabilities to his colleagues to help them understand its implications and potential by showing examples of essay prompts he input into ChatGPT, such as “write a five-paragraph essay about why the colonists won the Revolutionary War.”

Within seconds the program returned work that one Hill School History teacher – who had assigned a similar prompt to his students – described as “A-level work.”

“My reaction was I laughed, then dread,” the teacher said during Lyman's presentation.

In an interview with FauquierNow, Jim O’Brokta, a history teacher at Liberty High School, said that regardless of whether he asked ChatGPT to write an essay about a broad topic, such as “compare and contrast the government of ancient Athens,” or something specific, such as, “describe the effects of European Colonization based on the engravings of Theodor de Bry,” the program almost always generated a “correct and cohesive” essay.

“When grading the ChatGPT responses on the [Advanced Placement] rubric, it generally scored 3 or 4 out of 6 possible points,” O’Brokta said. “That is still a solid essay and something not too different from what I might get from many of my students.”

Even chatbots make mistakes

But O’Brokta said the program is not infallible and noted that it consistently failed to meet several AP exam requirements even after he included the rubric.

“ChatGPT writes an essay that looks nice, but it doesn't include everything required on AP rubrics,” he said. “The 2 points that it never seemed to earn are what we refer to as the Context and Analysis points. Those are also 2 of the most difficult points for students to earn on the AP exam.“

Marjorie Kuzminski, director of Highland’s Upper School in Warrenton, said that she asked the program to compose an essay on the presidency of Alexander Hamilton -- but the program did not include the information that Hamilton never served as president.

“Like any tool, ChatGPT can act as a facilitator to build knowledge and skills, or it could be a hindrance to authentic growth and learning,” Kuzminski said.

Several school systems throughout the Washington area, including those in Fairfax and Mongomery counties, have blocked students from accessing ChatGPT on school grounds and school-issued computers.

When asked whether Fauquier County Public Schools plans to ban the technology, Tara Helkowski, the school system's director of communications and community engagement, said the system is not currently considering a new policy regarding ChatGPT.

Jonathan Clark, who teaches various technology courses at Liberty High School, including cybersecurity, said he hopes Fauquier continues to allow teachers to use ChatGPT because he argued teachers need to learn how to use the technology.

“If you ban or block it, nobody will look at it, and…it will be harder for [teachers] even to tell when students use it because we're unfamiliar with the tool,” Clark told FauquierNow.

Like Lyman, Clark said he is currently working with the school system to help it develop “the right procedures” on how teachers should approach ChatGPT in a way that does not “vilify” the technology.

“Hopefully, we'll have something by mid-spring to help give teachers guidance because it is an open-ended Pandora's box kind of thing,” Clark said.

Teachers are always adapting

Although AI could make assignments easier for students, O’Brokta and Lyman argued that teachers learned to adapt to another huge technology disruption not too long ago: Google.

“I remember when Google first came out, and there was a pretty much universal throwing up of hands…across a community of educators saying… ‘this is the end of research,’” Lyman said. “When Wikipedia came out, it was a similar sort of thing; educators were saying, ‘no one's going to ever learn anything, again [students] will be getting inaccurate information from a site that is not particularly policed."

Lyman acknowledged that it would be more difficult for teachers with hundreds of students to find ways to use the technology effectively without students abusing it. But he noted it's important for educators to try to get ahead of the problem and incorporate the technology into the classroom, because eventually it will become a part of people's everyday lives.

"I do think it's important to realize kids are gonna get good at this," Lyman said. "It is very likely that the kids that we're teaching now, by the time they’re in the workforce, it's going to be commonplace to be consulting with a machine to do a lot of your writing."

Lyman said there is no doubt AI will make the process of writing easier as it evolves, but he argued that teachers have always known students receive help at home with their writing from their family and friends.

He noted the difference is that ChatGPT has the potential to not only make writing easier, but “also help demystify” the process for his students, many of whom he described as “writing phobic.”

“If what this ends up doing is that we can prioritize student voice a little bit more and to stop pushing people into… ‘you've got to be able to write this kind of essay for high school. I want it to sound like this,’” Lyman said. "I think that maybe kids will be able to learn to write better if they see it, and they can reproduce it easily. Maybe they'll get the recipe faster."

In the coming months, O’Brokta and Lyman said they might experiment with ChatGPT in the classroom by asking students to do more presentations, assigning writing exercises during class rather than at home, and allowing students to use the technology with supervision.

O’Brokta said many teaching methods are outdated, and the disruption of AI should incentivize teachers to start changing some of their practices.

“When teaching writing, we can't just say, ‘Here is your essay prompt; take it home and submit it by the end of the week,’” O’Brokta said. “When teaching writing, we should really focus on doing this in the classroom. We should create an environment where students are supervised and are sharing drafts of their work with their teacher.”

Instead, O’Brokta argued that ChatGPT might be an opportunity for teachers to create a more collaborative and intimate experience in the classroom, in which teachers can offer suggestions for revisions and coach students rather than having them work through problems independently at home.

“For this to work, teachers need to modify how they assess and prepare students for the real world,” O’Brokta said.

(2) comments


Have ye not read what inventors of ChatGPT have to say? Try one day when AI becomes so advanced that it makes decisions entirely on its own and perhaps decides to kill us all. Don't discount what evil this technology could devise. But, like my post about the data center, this may well be censored out.


Every time I read an article including Mr. O'Brokta, I wish my kids would have had him as a teacher at some point!

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