'Will ChatGPT revolutionise our learning and teaching?'

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By Dennis Sale

IN my previous column I mentioned the increasingly talked about AI software ChatGPT (‘GPT’ stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer) that allows users to ask questions in a conversational – natural – language style. It was developed by the American company OpenAI and quickly raised concerns from academics, journalists and others, because of its ability to produce answers that are similar to actual human responses.

In this column I have co-written the initial content with ChatGPT, and then I offer my summary on its potential key impacts for both students and teachers in a rapidly changing educational landscape.

Let’s start by asking ChatGPT to give us a key summary of what it is.

In response, it answered: ‘ChatGPT is a computer program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate text-based responses to prompts or questions. It is designed to mimic human language and can be used to answer questions, provide information, or engage in conversation. Essentially, ChatGPT is a tool that can be used to communicate with a computer program as if you were talking to another person.’

Now for a further question – how can it help people to learn better? The software responded: ‘ChatGPT can be a useful tool to learn better in several ways:

  • Answering questions: ChatGPT can provide answers to your questions on a wide range of topics. By using ChatGPT to answer your questions, you can quickly get the information you need to help you better understand a subject.

  • Generating summaries: ChatGPT can summarize complex ideas and texts into concise and easy-to-understand summaries. This can help you to quickly grasp the main points of a subject or topic.

  • Providing feedback: ChatGPT can provide feedback on your writing, helping you to improve your writing skills. By inputting your written work into ChatGPT, it can analyse your writing and provide suggestions for improvement.

  • Recommending resources: ChatGPT can recommend books, articles, and other resources to help you learn more about a subject. By inputting a topic or question into ChatGPT, it can generate a list of resources for you to explore.’

To use Chat GPT effectively, skill in asking the right questions is necessary to ensure the most useful focused responses. I subsequently asked it to generate guidance on what are good questions.

ChatGPT replied:

  • Be specific: Ask clear and specific questions, rather than a broad or vague one. This will help me understand exactly what you are looking for and provide a more precise response.

  • Provide context: Give some background information or context to help me understand the question better. This could include relevant details about a particular situation, your knowledge or experience in the subject matter, or any relevant information that will help me provide a better answer.

  • Avoid assumptions: Try not to make assumptions about the topic or question. If you are unsure about something or have a limited understanding, it’s OK to ask for clarification or to phrase your question in a way that allows for a more nuanced response.

  • Ask follow-up questions: If my response is not entirely clear or if you need more information, don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. This will help ensure that you get the information you need and that you fully understand the topic.

A brief overview of ChatGPT

Firstly, it is simple to use – just type in the request and click the arrow; it usually starts processing immediately. As I write this column, a new version of ChatGPT has been released. While version 3.5 (the one I have used here) is impressive, ChatGPT 4 has significantly greater capability to display advanced reasoning. For example, while using ChatGPT 3.5, its responses to taking the Uniform Bar Exam (a standardised test used by many US jurisdictions as part of their bar admission process) offered around a 10% chance of passing; ChatGPT4 offers a 90% chance – that’s some advancement.

How can ChatGPT enhance student learning?

ChatGPT can act as an intelligent tutor. Firstly, it can find information needed for specific learning tasks and answer questions – often within a few seconds – and then be asked further questions to clarify content that is not understood. It can also produce different versions at different levels of complexity and styles, organise the content, provide summaries of key concepts, and even write essays. It is like having the world’s experts at your fingertips.

This saves significant time in both the learning process generally, as well as studying for exams. It is to be noted, however, that students must make sure they understand the content generated by employing good critical-thinking skills (eg analysis, comparison/contrast and evaluation) and doing the necessary retrieval and spaced practice. Without good mental processing there will not be effective transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory; hence limited development of conceptual understanding in the mind, and poor neural wiring in the brain.

How can ChatGPT enhance teaching practices?

Teachers are also learners, so the above affordances are similarly accrued – of course to their work context. It can specifically help in developing courses, as well as enabling them to be fully current on new research on how people learn and what instructional approaches are most effective. Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly in today’s context, it offers the potential for extensive effective and efficient differentiated instruction. This includes ongoing personalised instruction and feedback in real time – something that was only possible with one-to-one tutoring in the past.

Also, with teachers being able to save time on resource preparation, they can focus more on developing critical-thinking skills, self-regulatory habits of mind, and building students’ resilience in dealing with real-world challenges – what I have referred to as metacognitive capability (Sale, 2020).

In summary, ChatGPT, and other AI innovations, constitute an exciting area for human experience, although they may be scary to some (even to Elon Musk) and there are reasons for this. For me, the machines are not just coming, they are here, and they will get smarter and smarter, and may become ‘super intelligent’ – whatever that entails. This means there needs to be a wider understanding of what’s really happening in the various scientific communities (ie genetics, robotics, IT and nanotechnology).

Responses to such AI innovations will increasingly evoke heated ethical debate, challenge beliefs about what it means to be human and what constitutes desired future scenarios.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100-plus consultancies in the Asian region. He is the author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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