Ai and Education
Last updated: Mar 8, 2023
People seem to be pretty up in arms about AI and how it’s affecting education. Specifically, I’ve heard quite a few people concerned about the impact of kids using apps like ChatGPT to write essays for english class.
Honestly, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue other than I’m somehwere in between the extremes of “AI is ruining everything” and “AI is the best thing to ever happen to us.”
On the one hand, if a computer can do your homework for you perhaps our education models are out of date. The entire human civilization has been built upon the work of others since the dawn of humanity, each discovery standing on the step ladder that is the discovery before it.
Formal education has always moved forward with assumptions. Kids are expected to know how to count before we can teach them math. They are expected to read before they write. But this model has always assumed the need to understand such building blocks in order to progress. But think about this - over the pandemic, students used video chat apps and word processors to complete their homework and none of them understood how that technology worked. They were just able to use it.
As a driver, many people have no clue how to change a tire or change the oil or rebuild a transmission or bore out the engine head to get a few more CC’s of power. They know as much as they need to so they can operate the vehicle and use it as a tool to get from one place to another. And beyond that, nobody needs to know how to feed a horse or care for a wagon, because the technology has moved on.
Writing has always been a technology. Language itself is a technology. It has morphed and molded itself by use and misuse and reuse since we started uttering syllables. The rules change, understanding changes. And if you pulled someone forward from 200 years ago, or you sent someone back 200 years from today, communication would be difficult.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that instead of holding on to the “way we do things” (ie, writing 5 paragraph essays on some bullshit subject nobody really cares about in order to “learn how to communicate effectively”) perhaps we need to understand how using ChatGPT to write essays might actually allow us to teach communication skills faster.
After all, when writing, the idea is not to get practice typing on a keyboard. In fact, just 30 years ago writing would have entailed putting pen to paper. And it’s not even the idea of coming up with new and interesting words - in fact, most teachers will dock you points on your English essay if you make up words! No, the point of teaching “writing” is to teach the ability to take an idea (something you know, something you’ve learned, something you’re thinking about and questioning) and effectively conveying that idea to someone else, or a group of someone elses.
So let’s say that ChatGPT writes an essay for someone. They still need to determine if it makes sense. If it conveys the message they want to convey. And if it does, without any work on their part, then the assignment was, forgive me, pointless.
Education should move foward with technology. Build from it. Use it to go learn more interesting things. Great, we don’t have to worry about writing an email or an article because the computer did it. While it wrote that, I was able to go do this other thing that is more interesting, that requires actual human thought and emotion and effort. Now I have time for it. And when the robot is done, I can run it’s content through my squishy physical fleshy gelatinous human filter and figure out if I need to edit it, but I don’t have to spend hours coming up with something for the blank page. I get to improve things. Move forward.
Now, I understand, as well, that there are basic fundamental needs in society. The ability to write, read, do basic arithmetic, it’s all important. And I’m a firm believer in the need to take control of your life, to understand things from first principles whenever possible, to be able to fix a flat tire or write a letter with pen and paper when the power goes out.
But not everyone needs the same level of those skills, or even wants that for their lives. And that’s okay. Our basic education should be doing basic things, meeting the base level of competency for functioning out in the real world. Maybe that means being able to write an email. Maybe that just means being able to appropriately prompt a compute to write an email.
This is not to say that there aren’t issues with higher level education and cheating (though I will say that if we would be better about merit based rewards in society, then cheating in college would just be a waste of money because your performance in the workforce is probably going to suffer and thus we weed out the cheaters later one. Or maybe college doesn’t matter as much as we want for normal society. Maybe it should only be for the people that really want to write a 20 page essay from scratch and we should detach it entirely from getting a decent paying average job, but I digress).
But ultimately, I think that tools (because they are tools) like ChatGPT can actually accelerate education, even writing, if we just change our expectations a little bit and shift the model.