EXCLUSIVE: Georgia schools wrestle with the potential and pitfalls of ChatGPT

Georgia Tech professor Mark Leibert (center) talks with computer science student Ramya Iyer (green) during an Art and Artificial Intelligence class on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2022. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Georgia Tech professor Mark Leibert (center) talks with computer science student Ramya Iyer (green) during an Art and Artificial Intelligence class on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2022. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Jude McLaren’s professor issued a warning on the first day of a class at Georgia Tech.

In the future, the professor acknowledged, everyone will use ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence computer program that can spit out sophisticated essays almost instantaneously, explain complicated concepts and tackle other tasks. But, don’t be tempted to try it in her computer science ethics class.

“She said if you use it, I’m not going to be able to detect you. You’re going to get by scot-free,” said McLaren, a second-year student. “She just said if you cheat in this class, it’s bad karma. Don’t do it.”

The chatbot’s public release late last year is already transforming academia. College professors and high school teachers, concerned the technology poses a cheating threat, are revamping homework and lesson plans to deter its use or to integrate it so assignments remain meaningful. Across Georgia and the nation, students will be writing more by hand, submitting draft versions of papers or even orally defending their arguments.

Many schools are leaving it to instructors to decide if and how students use ChatGPT. In DeKalb and Fulton counties, it’s blocked on school district computers. University of Georgia leaders urged faculty to update their spring 2023 syllabuses to explicitly state their expectations.

“Although using ChatGPT does not necessarily equate to academic dishonesty, as it can be used ethically for teaching, learning, and assessment, instructors need to set clear guidelines about what it can and cannot be used for in their classes,” UGA provost S. Jack Hu and others said in a memo.

At Georgia Tech, the admissions director predicted colleges will drop the standard essay requirement for applicants or use unscripted interviews, short videos and proctored writing samples to help decide which students get in.

Educators have described the technology as an academic turning point that’s wowed, terrified and, in some cases, inspired.

“When the calculator was introduced, everyone who taught math thought the world had ended,” said Susan Codone, professor of technical communication at Mercer University. “Now calculators are routine. This is kind of a calculator moment for writing.”

Possibilities and limitations

Within five days of its launch in late November, ChatGPT had gained a million users. It’s now one of the fastest-growing online tools in history.

And in a further sign that the AI revolution is here, Google announced it will publicly release a chatbot competitor, Bard, in the coming weeks.

ChatGPT’s maker, OpenAI, uses massive amounts of text data from books, websites and other sources to generate answers to questions and reply to prompts.

In a flash, ChatGPT can crank out a 466-word essay on symbolism in the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It can draft emails, create original rhyming couplets and jokes, craft business plans, generate workout plans, offer editing suggestions, write computer code and, in one experiment, pass law school exams. A recent update improved its mathematical capabilities.

“I got it to write a rap in the style of Shakespeare about unicorns and marzipan,” said Chelle Wabrek, associate head of school for the private Lovett School in Atlanta.

There are limitations. When Wabrek asked ChatGPT to write her biography, it gave incomplete or inaccurate information.

The prose can be stilted and formulaic: Quite a few essays end with the tired, transitional phrase “In conclusion.” ChatGPT also can contain bias and errors, especially since its knowledge largely is limited to 2021 and earlier.

Still, some students are using it to cut corners. In a recent survey by the online site Intelligent of 1,000 college students, 30% of respondents said they’ve used ChatGPT on written homework even though most of those users consider it to be cheating.

Online plagiarism checkers can struggle to flag the use of ChatGPT because the text that it produces hasn’t appeared elsewhere. Various efforts are underway to improve detection, including from its own maker.

OpenAI released a tool to help distinguish between human and chatbot writing. However, a spokeswoman said in an email that “it still has a number of limitations” and should not be used as the primary method of deciding a text’s source.

Academic response

Because the chatbot can produce decent writing that’s hard to catch, teachers said it’s all the more critical to assign nuanced homework.

District officials in Cobb and Gwinnett counties said ChatGPT actually can support learning when used thoughtfully. And some teachers said it will force them to focus even more on the writing process — how to organize and analyze ideas — and to help students develop a unique voice.

“For the next two to three years, we are going to have almost like a crisis of pedagogy in English classes as we are figuring out how we shift,” said Susan Barber, who teaches Advanced Placement English Literature at Midtown High School in Atlanta.

Barber is not panicking. She’s looking to creatively and constructively incorporate ChatGPT into her courses. It can offer writing revisions or produce a counter-argument, helping to sharpen a student’s essay.

“Writing is just teaching thinking, so we can’t abandon that,” she said.

AI can be useful, but its writing is generic and not always appropriate, said Elizabeth Davis, an English professor at UGA.

“There’s nuance the machine just can’t quite grasp,” she said.

She envisions writing classes that integrate the technology and challenge students to analyze audience, voice and factual accuracy.

Georgia Tech professor Mark Leibert (right) and Ethan Trewhitt, senior research engineer at Georgia Tech Research Institute, interact with students during an Art & Artificial Intelligence project session on Jan. 31, 2022, Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

About 180 faculty members joined a recent ChatGPT workshop at Mercer. Codone, the technical communication professor who also directs the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, said it’s not reasonable to try to ban the program, especially because students will work with similar programs in their jobs.

“I think there are many, many ways in which it can be useful, but the line between useful and appropriate is what we are trying to walk,” she said.

Codone urges instructors to adapt assignments so they’re grounded in unique or local scenarios that are beyond ChatGPT’s knowledge base.

Or go old school.

On her first day of class, she brought in paper and pens and told her students to write an essay by hand. That captured their writing style and skills, and now she can refer back to it if she sees any sudden changes during the semester.

Cynthia Alby, a professor of teacher education at Georgia College and State University, leads a graduate-level course in which many of her students are current middle and high school teachers.

This semester, she tossed her usual lessons and is instead focusing on what it means to teach English in the age of AI. Some of her students were unaware of ChatGPT. Others were grateful to hear someone address their concerns about the future of education. Together, they’re wrestling with how to teach English in a way that’s so meaningful that students won’t want to outsource the work to a computer.

“It could be the beginning of a new era where we take seriously students’ interests and intrinsic motivation,” Alby said.

Students’ views

Computer science student Ramya Iyer (center) shows a presentation to professor Mark Leibert (right) during an Art & AI project session at Georgia Tech on Jan. 31, 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

ChatGPT is shaking up more than just English class.

Georgia Tech professor Mark Leibert is finding ways to incorporate it into an Art & AI project. Some of his students will be creating digital avatars that sync up with ChatGPT, perhaps using the program to power conversations with the characters.

In a recent class, Ramya Iyer, a second-year student majoring in computer science, showed how she used ChatGPT to brainstorm ideas for digital art. She then used another AI tool to generate images, telling the program through stylistic prompts to give the work a more ephemeral feel.

The result, Iyer said, was presentable artwork that didn’t take too long to create.

Leibert said AI can help pull artists out of a rut by suggesting the unexpected. He can use it to quickly create numerous scenes and change up composition and scale. Art, he said, gives him a way to consider many possibilities without any strict goals.

Leibert’s found that it’s better to engage critically with the technology than to shy away from it.

“I think for a lot of educators who are stuck in their ways, it’s going to be a rude awakening,” he said.

Students also are sorting out how to responsibly use ChatGPT.

Iyer said she wouldn’t ask it to do her coding homework because that would be unauthorized and because she wouldn’t learn anything. But she’s used it as a study tool to walk her through a particular method or to show her a new way to solve a problem.

“Sometimes, though, it can give you really incorrect answers,” Iyer said. “The textbook is always going to be the authority.”

Barber, the Midtown High teacher, discovered that her students’ perception of ChatGPT can vary dramatically depending on the situation. She heard students talking about how they could save time by using it to write application essays for their backup colleges. But those same students “were incensed” when Barber told them some teachers have played with using it to write their college recommendation letters.

Matthew Karshna, a senior at UGA, hasn’t tried ChatGPT, but he thinks it could enhance or clarify ideas and eventually “erase a lot of the mundane and boring” aspects of being an English major.

This semester, he’s finishing up his degree and enjoying his time in a dance class. “If ChatGPT allows you to get your essay done in a way that allows you to take ballroom dancing in college, then I’m for it,” Karshna said.

Stella Maximuk, a junior at Midtown High, first heard of ChatGPT when a teacher sent a message saying that students had been caught using it and that those who cheat will get a zero.

That made Maximuk curious about what the program could do. When she fed it some of her old research papers, ChatGPT provided helpful criticism.

But she grew alarmed the more she researched the program, partly because she couldn’t tell what sources it used to generate responses.

“That’s a big red flag,” she said. “I know it’s very common for youth especially to accidentally believe misinformation, and with AI I think it’s very dangerous.”

She’s also concerned because she wants a career that involves writing.

“I am extremely terrified for what it could do in the future,” she said. “I know it’s going to get better from here.”

Staff writer Lucinda Warnke contributed to this article.

How are people using ChatGPT?

We asked teachers and students how they’ve used the chatbot. Here are some examples:

Cynthia Alby, professor of teacher education at Georgia College and State University: She wrote a piece about how she interviewed the chatbot and had it respond to questions in the style of best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

Elizabeth Davis, English professor at the University of Georgia and coordinator of the Writing Certificate Program: To write narrative stories.

Mark Leibert, professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication: To provide information about ancient land management systems.

Jude McLaren, Georgia Tech student majoring in computational media: To figure out what recipes he could make with ingredients he had on hand. The resulting red pepper curry soup “was delicious,” he said.

Andrew Thompson, UGA alum applying to law school: To write a poem about two frogs in love in the style of Wordsworth.