What is ChatGPT and How Can You Teach With It? Tips & Tricks

(Image credit: Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay)

ChatGPT is the most advanced AI language generator and chatbot ever made widely available to the public. Since November 2022 when ChatGPT went live to the public, more than a million people have used the free tool and the website servers have frequently been overloaded during peak times. 

For educators, teaching with ChatGPT is something of a double-edged sword. As a writer and writing professor, I’m very conscious of both these edges. I recently wrote about the ways in which AI writing tools such as ChatGPT could be used by students to cheat. The technology is good enough that by simply typing in a few quick prompts, a student can use ChatGPT to churn out complete or nearly complete essays and papers in minutes. 

On the other hand, teaching with ChatGPT offers educators many opportunities. The technology can be used to help students outline or organize their papers, and at its best, can serve as a powerful, fun-to-use digital tutor that works like an improved version of Google. 

The tool, and I admit this somewhat begrudgingly, can also be fun to use. While I remain wary of its potential for abuse, right now it’s a modern tech marvel and seeing its response sometimes feels like watching the tech world’s equivalent of a magic show. 

What Is ChatGPT? 

ChatGPT was designed by the Microsoft-backed OpenAI, an AI research company. The GPT stands for generative, pre-trained, transformer. 

OpenAI previously released GPT-3, which did eye-catching things such as write an op-ed for The Guardian and was even used by some to try and recreate the speech patterns of deceased loved ones. ChatGPT builds on GPT-3 technology with the ability to answer questions in a more sophisticated manner. In this way, the model works like an improved version of digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa and as a more efficient Google. 

Though much like a traditional search engine, what you learn from it isn’t always accurate.  You can also prompt it to write passages on certain topics in certain styles. 

What Are Some Ways to Teach With ChatGPT?  

Use ChatGPT as a Digital Tutor

Because of its quick ability to answer questions, ChatGPT is a fun tool for inquiry. Jeremy Howard, an AI researcher, recently shared with The New York Times how his 7-year-old daughter used ChatGPT as a digital tutor, asking it questions and getting solid answers about what trigonometry is good for and where black holes come from as well as why chickens incubate their eggs. 

Many students will likely start using the tool in this way whether their teacher tells them to or not, so addressing this use can be a good proactive teaching practice. 

When the January semester begins, I plan on reminding my students that right now ChatGPT is a little like a fairy in an old tale--any gift it offers likely comes with a catch. For example, its responses are not always accurate and while its creators note that there are restrictions in place to limit abuse, ChatGPT might still “occasionally produce harmful instructions or biased content.”

Use ChatGPT to Provide a Writing Prompt

One of the biggest hurdles for many students (or anyone really) when it comes to writing is just facing the horror of the blank page and getting started. Using ChatGPT as a prompt can be helpful as long as students can resist the temptation to copy and paste what they find. 

Use ChatGPT To Teach Writing Styles 

Teaching students to recognize different genres and styles of writing is often an important part of writing class. ChatGPT can be a fun way to help with this because you can ask it to emulate the writing style of an author whose work you are reading for class. Then students can then examine in what spots it misses the mark. For instance, when I asked it to describe snow in the style of Ernest Hemingway, it failed to emulate the short and direct sentences for which the author is known. 

Discuss the Moral Implication of the Technology 

One of the best teaching opportunities with ChatGPT might be to really dig into its ethical implications and potential problems. Having students critically fact-check its responses can be valuable. As can examining the larger dangers of this technology. Why is using ChatGPT to generate school assignments wrong? Is it wrong? These are the types of questions that I suspect students and society as a whole will be grappling with for years to come and it can’t hurt for students to get a head start in thinking about them. 

How Do You Sign up for a ChatGPT Account?  

Signing up for free access to ChatGPT requires sharing an email address and phone number. It only takes a few minutes to verify your email and phone number, but educators should check with their IT or technology department before encouraging students to do this. 

Educators can also avoid most potential issues with student privacy by exploring ChatGPT as a class using only the teacher's account.  

What ChatGPT Says about Teaching With ChatGPT?  

I was unsure how to finish this article, so I asked ChatGPT, “What are some ways educators can use ChatGPT to teach?" The response was: 

ChatGPT is a chatbot developed by OpenAI, and it is not intended to be used as an educational tool. ChatGPT is a large language model trained to generate human-like text based on the input it receives. It can be used to generate creative writing prompts, to have interesting conversations with, or simply to provide entertainment. However, it is not designed to be used for teaching purposes.

Sam Altman CEO of OpenAI also recently cautioned against relying on ChatGPT just yet. “ChatGPT is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness,” he tweeted. “It's a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now. it’s a preview of progress; we have lots of work to do on robustness and truthfulness.” 

Regardless of what ChatGPT or Altman say, I suspect it’s a question of ”when” not “if” most students will start using ChatGPT or similar technology as part of their schoolwork. In other words, teaching with ChatGPT is something we’re probably going to have to do as educators, whether we want to or not, or that is its intended use or not. 

Or at least that’s the opinion of this very human writer. 

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Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.