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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Classroom Technology Opinion

Will ChatGPT Unflip the Classroom?

Teachers must ensure students are learning—and not just outsourcing tasks to AI
By Rick Hess — January 26, 2023 4 min read
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ChatGPT has occasioned a lot of hand-wringing, cheering, and philosophizing. Some have predicted “The End of High School English.” Others have been enthusiastic to use it as a wonderful new teaching tool. But, through it all, I’ve been struck by the inattention to one very practical question: Is ChatGPT going to unflip the classroom?

First, to be safe, I should quickly clarify two things. ChatGPT is, of course, the new AI chatbot with an astonishing ability to write on all manner of subjects in all kinds of styles. And the “flipped” classroom is one in which students read, write, and master content at home, permitting teachers to devote class time to more personalized activities—like mentoring and discussion.

Ed-tech devotees have spent the past decade cheering the novel potential of digital tools to “flip” the classroom. They were partly right. What they got wrong, as I explained years ago, is that the classroom was first flipped by the advent of the printing press five centuries ago, when it became possible for students to absorb content at home. So the talk of tech-fueled flipping was always something of an oversimplification. It has certainly been true, however, that over the past decade, new technologies have made it easier for students to do more of the heavy lifting of learning at home—freeing up class time for more dynamic pursuits.

Until now.

What I find most startling about ChatGPT is that—after a short window in which 21st-century technology helped flip the classroom—this hyper-sophisticated artificial intelligence may make the case for a pretty dramatic unflipping of student writing.

After all, teachers have long sought to maximize in-class learning time by having students write at home. Essays. Book reports. “What-I-did-last-summer.” Research papers. Rather than have students huddle over a tablet, a keyboard, or a piece of paper, teachers had them write at home. There were always concerns about plagiarism, passages copied from Wikipedia (and, before that, an encyclopedia), or untoward assistance, but such tactics were typically time-consuming and inconvenient. When I taught high school—back in the last century—I’d assign extended reports on current campaigns, ongoing court cases, unfolding protests, or whatnot, precisely because, especially back before Wikipedia, plagiarizing that kind of assignment required a good bit of cobbling-together and elbow grease.

Well, ChatGPT turns fraudulent writing into a breeze. It replaces piecemeal cheats with wholesale, efficient fabrication. ChatGPT makes it possible to write passably on almost any subject, in almost any style. The result isn’t always lucid or meaningful, but the same is true of much student writing. And the lion’s share of K-12 and college teachers I’ve talked to or heard from on this tell me they’d find it’s really tough to confidently distinguish authentic student work from ChatGPT’s stylings. (Now, I’ve been getting PR blasts from ed-tech firms that promise their systems can spot ChatGPT products—but, at a cursory look, thus far, these promised solutions don’t strike me as especially persuasive or practical.) In fact, less than two months after ChatGPT was introduced to the world, one-third of college students use it on homework: three-fourths of whom think it’s cheating but use it anyway.

By next fall, assuming ChatGPT remains freely available and the word has spread among students, teachers may be looking to grade a sheaf of student essays with no real way to tell whether they were actually penned by the students in question. And districts blocking access to ChatGPT at school won’t matter, at least for any student with access to a tablet or laptop outside of school.

There will only be one practical response: Bring writing back into the classroom, where teachers can observe the writing process or engage with students about each writing assignment. Teachers may require students to write their essays at their desks, under close observation. They may require students to check in at each stage of the writing process, showing outlines and notes. They may have students do an oral presentation on any piece of substantive writing.

This isn’t necessarily bad. There may be practical benefits. Students may be more focused on their writing. It may encourage more healthy iteration as part of the writing process. But it’s a giant step back from airy talk of flipped classrooms. And, unless we’re confident that all students are developing a no-shortcuts conscientiousness that’s not been the norm over the past century, ChatGPT may mark the advent of AI that requires more work to be done where educators can ensure students are learning what they’re supposed to be learning—and not just outsourcing tasks to AI.

In other words, after a decade or two in which digital tools helped further flip the classroom, we may be entering an era in which these tools might—however ironically—become an agent of unflipping.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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