Text generator ChatGPT is here and won’t go away, says MBO teacher Conrad Berghoef. He decided to introduce the phenomenon to his students himself. ‘Is this allowed? Do other teachers know this too?’
Imagine having an ultra-smart sister who understands all your homework assignments and is willing to do your homework for free. She can even do it in such a way that your teachers really don’t find out that she did it. Well, maybe they have their doubts, but they can’t prove anything. They’re staring at your table a bit glassy and might even dare to ask if you really did it yourself, but it’s your word against theirs.
And the best thing is: your sister can always do, and almost everything. She’s even willing to make a few mistakes to make it look real. Sounds ideal, right? That sister is here now. And her name is ChatGPT.
Sometimes things come up in education that make you think as a teacher: ‘this is really going to change so much in daily teaching practice’. This rarely happens in one fell swoop: the introduction of whiteboards, smartphones and educational apps for them often happened very gradually.
ChatGPT was a kind of cluster bomb in 2022, the effect of which we still do not know. I wonder whether we should embrace the phenomenon, or whether we should be terrified of it. And whether I should just quit my job as a Dutch teacher. If more people do that, we will immediately solve the teacher shortage.
I describe the ChatGPT as a very, very advanced search engine that not only shows you where to get the information from on the internet, but can also organize and write everything in such a way that it can also perform complex commands. Very handy if you get difficult homework assignments.
Full of disbelief
I tried it out for the first time in December 2022. ,,It must be”, I thought, when I entered an assignment that our students ‘Care’ at level 4 receive in the second year: ‘Write an argument about technology in healthcare in three hundred words’.
For the next ten or twenty seconds I stared at my screen in disbelief: within a dialog, an argument was built up at breakneck speed, with an introduction, body and conclusion, a statement with arguments, in which counter-arguments were negated. Including a fancy blinking cursor and a somewhat dated font: the eighties nerd in me was served at his beck and call.
But hey, as a teacher I can’t be caught for just one hole. An argument is different from an Instagram poem, or a poem about your hometown. It was with great pride that I had given those creative writing assignments to my students. With healthy skepticism, I typed in the words “write an Instagram poem.” Within seven seconds, ChatGPT came up with a short, concise poem, including hashtags and a format that would fit perfectly within Instagram’s square.
I will spare you which assignments I gave afterwards, but after an evening I knew enough: this program can do (almost) everything. And no matter what writing assignment I give my students, once they have this program, they have virtually nothing to do.
On the troops ahead
You don’t have to be a great philosopher to know: every technology is developed to be used. The ChatGPT is here and won’t go away. ‘This should be banned’, I read somewhere on Twitter in December, but in a country where mobile phones are not banned at school and where laptops are sometimes required at school, you know that’s not going to happen. I decided to sit in the waiting room for a while: first let my students sweat on their texts themselves, we’ll talk about it later.
In mid-January, the general public discovered ChatGPT, via TikTok, the NOS and subsequently several TV programs. Tenor of the reactions: ‘Thanks to this program you never have to do your homework again’. That kind of headlines works well, of course. And through TikTok, it wouldn’t be long before my students knew. But I decided to get ahead of the pack: I wanted to show my students what the program can do for them.
In the last week of January I introduced the program in all my MBO classes. “You’re a nice one too,” said some colleagues, “you just tell them how to cheat. Do you also write their cheat sheets?” I tried to explain that I would prefer my students to hear from me that this program existed, so that we could discuss the implications together. Moreover, it doesn’t hurt for your students to know that you know how to get around an assignment.
Too good to be true
Well, I had to wait for the responses first. Half-hearted as a teacher can sometimes be, I decided to just show it off; they had to figure out for themselves exactly how to get there.
How were the reactions? Imagine telling the children at a children’s party that everything is allowed: eat as much cake as you want, you can throw food, draw on the wallpaper, there is more candy than you can eat… You will be looked at with a mixture of happy surprise, some suspicion, and also some trepidation: this is too good to be true, this can’t be good either, but oh, how nice it is.
It didn’t take long before several students had already found and tried the program themselves, and they agreed with me: this could be a real game changer are. And when I said that we as teachers are virtually powerless – plagiarism checkers are (still) short – there was endless speculation. A selection of the reactions:
,, What this had been like at pre-vocational secondary education, really, I had passed everything.”
“What’s this, ‘super-Siri?'”
– ,,Do the other teachers know this too?”
“Is this really possible?”
,,But then you don’t learn anything, do you?” (Answer: ,,Yes, buoy.”)
Admittedly, I may have enjoyed this display a little too much. After all, I showed something that I myself had no part in. Still, it was nice to see the surprise. And besides, it was good to talk about the consequences: how could we as teachers prevent ChatGPT from doing all the homework? “Yeah duh, just don’t give orders.”
But a little further beyond the normal student reflexes, a really good conversation started. When I suggested that we should go back to the old system with notebook and pen, I was ridiculed: wasn’t it the schools themselves that had obliged students to purchase a laptop? Then it would be very unfair to go back to that.
In addition, the students said, ChatGPT is not foolproof. ,,You still have to know quite a lot of things to find out whether what he writes is correct, and whether you can hand it in like that,” said a student. I already wrote it somewhere: maybe we should go back to nineteenth-century skills to deal with contemporary technology.
I have made an agreement with my students: in the coming months they may use the ChatGPT to submit writing assignments. All I ask of them is that they tell me honestly that and how they used it. Maybe they learn a little less from it themselves, but I have to look the beast in the mouth.
And maybe, if I really consider myself superfluous, I’ll do something else. But something tells me it won’t be that fast.
Conrad Berghoef from Drachten is a Dutch secondary vocational education teacher and author.