Why some Canadian teachers and professors are inviting ChatGPT into the classroom
In December, Brendan Benson started noticing his Grade 12 students were handing in essays that looked the same.
“I had voices that resembled one another,” said Benson, who teaches English at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ont.
He knew his students often relied on apps like Grammarly or AutoCorrect. But this was different.
“I started to wonder about students’ writing process,” he said. It wasn’t long before he figured out the answer was ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot, often used as a search engine alternative.
It can respond to prompts by composing jokes, songs, poetry and long, complex responses — including essays.
But instead of scolding his students and banishing the technology, Benson let them explain how they were using it, and last month came up with a plan for how to assess assignments done with the chatbot's help.
He's among teachers and professors across Canada who are inviting ChatGPT into the classroom, amid debate about ethics, plagiarism and other potential pitfalls.
Benson said he saw an opportunity to work with ChatGPT and encourage critical thinking among students, who he believed could do better than AI.
To help him assess assignments aided by ChatGPT, students were asked to submit transcripts of their conversations with the AI and explain what they learned about the writing process. They were excited, said Benson.
"When I put up the option to use ChatGPT, (one) student smiled … he just said, 'This is the most progressive, exciting thing I've ever been asked to do. This is great, I'm on board.'"
Joshua Armstrong, director of teaching and learning at Pickering College, said AI is going to be part of education and he's concerned about the ethical implications.
“We still want students to understand what plagiarism looks like,” he said. “It’s a core principle that we’ve taught our students for generations.”
He said it comes down to “good teaching around how to source something that you use from AI.”
At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Patrick Parra Pennefather has just finished a project in which students used ChatGPT to write a play in the style of William Shakespeare.
Pennefather, an assistant professor in the department of theatre and film, had students use ChatGPT to help write a scene in which Macbeth, Portia, Othello and Shylock — characters from three different Shakespeare plays — all meet.
“I encourage my students to try to go and play creatively with these generators to see how they can get them to create content they are curious about. So, Shakespeare is a perfect example,” said Pennefather.
Pennefather also asked students to test how ChatGPT writes essays and established that the AI loves using “in conclusion” to start an essay's final paragraph.
He sees it as a way of equipping students with the knowledge of how to navigate tools such as ChatGPT while improving their critical thinking. As a result, one of his students realized he was writing in a formulaic way and is now exploring new ways to compose.
Pretending AI tools did not exist was no solution, said Pennefather, and it was better to inspire students about how best to use them
“It’s a good thing. My impression of students is I trust them and they want to engage in every aspect of the courses that I teach.”
But some educators remain wary of ethical risks.
Garth Nichols, vice-principal of Havergal College, a Toronto-based independent girls school from kindergarten to Grade 12, wants students to understand the significance of intellectual property as AI becomes a part of learning.
He said ChatGPT did not produce extracts from existing prose or texts, but instead was a "large language model," a type of algorithm that bases its output on vast amounts of data. In so doing it could produce content without proper citation of the original creators.
That raised "really good questions about intellectual property and copyright,” Nichols said.
He said students would have to apply critical thinking to come up with ways to add value and avoid plagiarism.
Rundle College Society, a Calgary-based independent school, has been approaching AI with curiosity.
Headmaster Jason Rogers said the school is taking an informal, exploratory approach to AI in classrooms.
“Once we start to deeply consider those questions, we can look at more innovative and contextual approaches to implementing changes."
He said the goal is to introduce AI chatbot assistance in kindergarten to Grade 12 classes in the coming months.
The chatbot is also being discussed at the public school level.
The Calgary Board of Education said it is looking at opportunities and challenges presented by AI in its schools.
A spokeswoman for Edmonton Public Schools said it has been monitoring the development and evolution of AI and how it affects schools and students. In February, the board held a session for teachers on AI tools.
The Vancouver School Board released a podcast last week focusing on ChatGPT and discussing how it would affect students and teachers.
Jeff Spence, a speaker on the podcast and district principal of information technology at the school board, said he had encouraged teachers to test ChatGPT out.
“I think the most important thing with any new technology is to not be afraid of it and to not hide from it, but learn about it and to go and try it out,” said Spence. “I am very excited about all new technologies and how we can use them and especially how students learn better.”
Spence likened the introduction of AI to the arrival of calculators in mathematics classes. Using such tools wasn't cheating, if teachers knew about their use, he said.
Jutta Treviranus, a Toronto-based professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, took part in an online discussion hosted by UBC last week to discuss how AI tools are changing higher education.
She said educators would have to inspire students to hone adaptation, critical thinking and collaboration skills, rather than set them up for “collision courses” with AI systems.
“If we need to police education, we are doing something wrong,” Treviranus said. "If a machine can do what we are teaching our students to do, we are teaching our students to be machines."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Ritika Dubey and Nono Shen, The Canadian Press