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ChatGPT in schools: ‘If we don’t teach it, they will still use it’

As a new school year is about to start, educators must prepare themselves for the first full scholastic year of students using ChatGPT, experts have cautioned.

An AI tool that is able to answer questions by pulling from a large dataset, ChatGPT allows users to ask simple or complex questions and get their answers without having to make a single internet search.

While extremely helpful in many cases, the tool can give students answers they once had to study for and is able to answer their homework and write their essays.

Earlier this month, the United Nations called for the software and other AI tools to introduce older age limits, raising ChatGPT’s current age bar from 13 to a proposed 16.

But as the platform is still readily accessible to secondary students, teachers and schools must face the reality that the software may become a regular aid for their pupils.

“If we don’t teach them, they are still going to use it,” San Anton’s head of IT Gregory Sammut told Times of Malta.

It is not a perfect source, but rather a springboard for further searching- Gregory Sammut, a member of the MATSEC examination board and head of IT at San Anton School

A member of the MATSEC examination board which formulated the current computing syllabus, Sammut explained that schools need to address the problem head-on so it can be used fruitfully rather than as a quick one-stop shop for information.

During lessons in the past, Sammut, who teaches IT to forms three to five, has used ChatGPT and other AI platforms to help guide students through their research but has always emphasised that it is not a perfect source, but rather a springboard for further searching.

“I wasn’t using it in class until one student answered a question perfectly in class,” he said, as the pupil read the textbook answer for one of his questions directly from the website.

Sammut has seen several cases of students submitting ChatGPT’s work. Since the answers tend to be dictionary definitions or give a lot more information than a secondary student should know, Sammut hands the work back and asks for a new version.

This worried Sammut as it opened the possibility of students doing the same in class or at home for other subjects, allowing them to copy answers while the information may not be retained.

‘No major issues so far’

“So far, we haven’t had any major issues with other subjects, but I am confident that students are using it,” he said, believing there are those profiting from ChatGPT’s knowledge while going undiscovered. This presents a new issue, he said, which is the education of teachers within the school as they are “less aware than the students”.

Currently, San Anton plans to educate its staff on the software for the coming year while discussions will take place to introduce policies on how to address the growth of AI tools.

Since ChatGPT is still a new trend, it is still unclear how the software affects exam results, Sammut said, but it may be the case that pupils become reliant on the tool, giving them high homework grades but low exam results when they do not have a web browser handy.

During a business breakfast by the Malta Digital Innovation Authority in April, artificial intelligence professor Alexei Dingli said that assessments at university level must go beyond regurgitating facts.

While Dingli was not concerned about students using the software, he said that it could be time for educators to consider changing the way assessment is carried out as technology disrupts the learning ecosystem.

Questions regarding the use of ChatGPT in government schools have been sent to the Education Ministry.