The ethics of AI in academia

ChatGPT presents both challenges and opportunities at SHS

March 1, 2023 — ChatGPT is at the forefronts of the minds of students and professionals alike as the possibilities for what can be generated instantaneously become apparent. While many are excited by this progression in technology, others have more concern for the humans it could replace as well as the ethics of having essays and topical writing available upon command, an issue especially relevant to schools.

As an artificial intelligence (AI) based chatbot, ChatGPT uses Natural Language Processing to pull data from websites, textbooks, articles, and other sources to create a human-level interaction with the client. It is primarily focused on writing, but it can also generate code and work math problems, meaning that it has the potential to affect all branches of academics.

“When this first broke in November we had kind of an “uh oh” moment as a staff,” says Siuslaw High School principal Michael Harklerode. “Our technology director for the district is the one who pointed it out to me and mentioned the concern to me and I was pretty horrified at first. And horrified is not a word I use lightly here. Its initial impact seemed like it was going to be a game changer for us.”

This reaction was the first response of many who were immediately faced with the dangers of a new and revolutionary technology, including students.

“Many of my students, especially my students who work hard at their academics and excel on their own merit, I think they were the most put-off by this technology,” said Harklerode. “They were the ones who were most concerned that this might somehow put a damper on their hard efforts and their hard won standing in academics.”

Siuslaw High School did take precautions against the use of ChatGPT for academically dishonest purposes, including open discussion with students about the issue.

“We did start with a conversation with most of our students, particularly in our language arts classes where writing is a dominant form of some response from students,” said Harklerode.  “We had a frank conversation with the students about what would happen in terms of policy if we were able to determine that an assignment or task was less than genuine and was created by ChatGPT. Specifically, the first offense would be a failed assignment and a zero on the task, a second offense is a failed course.”

With the school taking precautions and growing accustomed to the presence of ChatGPT initial tensions have somewhat subsided.

“Staff immediately saw some concerns regarding plagiarism, cheating, and misrepresentation of work that is meant to be their own, however many staff [members] were quick to notice that there is some potential here as well,” says Harklerode. “Particularly on the math side. The program actually does a pretty good job explaining certain proofs and formulas, so it can almost be like a second tutor as long as students are using it to learn a process and not to arrive at an answer.”

Moving past the reactionary initial feelings of doom created by the abilities of ChatGPT, Harklerode began to see AI as a part of a natural progression of technology that was initially hailed as the “death knell of thought,” but eventually became integrated into curriculums and even encouraged.

“This is something we need to recognize as the next revolution in technology,” he says. “I remember very well when word processing came out. It was thought that that was going to be a harbinger of doom when it comes to thought and student writing. That was when I was a student in middle school. By the time I got to high school spellcheck was all the rage, and everyone thought for sure that not needing to know how to spell because Microsoft Word could do it for you, that was going to be the second bell rung toward the end of thought and education. By the time I was in college Wikipedia was online, so that made research, or at least base-level research, very easy. We managed to work around that too. I even remember when the calculator seemed to be the big illegal tool used to teach mathematics, and now we provide calculators for our upper-level math courses. We don’t even attempt to do without calculators — we incorporate it as a tool. I do think that in the long term ChatGPT is going to have a similar arc to those technologies.”

From this perspective of using AI as a tool in the classroom, Siuslaw High School is proceeding with caution but remaining open to ethical application of this technology.

“We have definitely come to the recognization and realization that we’re not going to stop this,” says Harklerode. “Attempts to thwart this technology completely by banning it from our network are not really effective. I do think it will change the nature of some assignments, I do think we will have more short response assignments as opposed to full essays, something that can be completely completed and handwritten in a class session as opposed to a take-home project or homework where we lose control over some of the parameters around it.”

In addition to these changes in approach, Siuslaw High School has the potential to move towards accepting use of ChatGPT under certain circumstances.

“One of the more interesting things that we have explored but have not made a decision on is whether ChatGPT could be used as a cited source amongst other sources of research,” said Harklerode. “I think there is some potential for that to be the case.”

As technology continues to advance at an unprecedented rate, it is natural for concerns and uncertainties to arise. The introduction of ChatGPT has sparked discussions on the ethics of using AI in the academic world and its potential to replace human creativity and intellectualism. However, Siuslaw High School's approach to incorporating ChatGPT as a tool rather than a threat sets an example for how technology can be embraced in education while practicing caution at the same time.