ChatGPT: How schools and universities are preparing for the artificial intelligence software

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence service which was launched shortly before the end of 2022. Credit: Getty

Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer James Gray

ChatGPT's emergence has led to concern from some in the education sector of its potential impacts on assessments within both schools and universities.

When the artificial intelligence (AI) service was launched in the US last November, its founding company, OpenAI, said it was "excited" to bring it into the public domain and continue to refine it based on real world feedback.

The AI requires users to enter a prompt which it will then respond to, mimicking an almost human like conversation.

It can give answers to questions, recognise mistakes and counter inappropriate requests.

ChatGPT could even write answers to assessments for students, whether it be a summary of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or a report on the reign of Henry VIII.

With technological advancements unavoidable, the AI has presented a dilemma for education providers: How can they prepare for any challenges it might pose?

Equally, how could they take advantage of the software and welcome it into the classroom, without it compromising the principles on which students are assessed.

Dr Neil Pickles, Associate Dean for Academic Development at Wrexham Glyndwr University, told ITV News that ChatGPT is a "disrupter", which will inevitably affect how universities assess students.

But he explained that doesn't necessarily mean its impacts will be wholly negative for the education sector.

"Some of the positives is that this application could be used in a very positive way to help change the way in which we assess students and to think differently about assessment," he said.

"Perhaps even to get students using it rather than trying to prevent its use, get it being used in a positive way and actually use that towards assignments.

"There are some errors. It’s not a perfect package, you know there are errors that creep in.

"That could be an element that could be looked at in a positive way to help build up awareness not only of subject area but also technology."

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It's a view shared by Dr Chindu Sreedharan, an Associate Professor in Journalism and Communication at Bournemouth University, who said higher education providers should embrace new software, including ChatGPT, as a way of helping students learn.

"Whether it becomes your friend, whether it becomes your foe, whether it’s good or bad depends on how you use it," he said.

He acknowledged concerns around plagiarism, but countered that it could have several practical uses for students.

For example, individuals may develop better writing practices by analysing how the AI structures responses, while others could view it as a more interactive way of researching topics because it mimics having a human conversation.

Some US schools have now moved to block ChatGPT altogether on school devices and networks, in response to its potential to be misused by students.

The New York City education department said it had restricted access because of fears around negative impacts on student learning, as well as "concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of content".

Elon Musk, who helped launch OpenAI in 2015, tweeted: "It’s a new world. Goodbye homework!" in the wake of the announcement.

As awareness of ChatGPT grows in the UK, Dr Pickles admitted preparations have already started at Wrexham Glyndwr University to overcome any possible hurdles.

Currently, a number of universities use a combination of plagiarism detecting software and teacher awareness of student writing styles to perform checks.

But he said the answer to identifying assessment submissions created by AI's was not "technological".

"Technology helps us but it’s really about knowing our students well, understanding how they approach their assignments, how we support them with their assignments and looking at changes in patterns in the way in which they write," he said.

"So by knowing our students well that is the best way to guard against an inappropriate use of such a platform."

Dr Pickles explained he is also involved in discussions which are looking to evolve assessment design and processes to understand the motivations behind why a student might choose to use AI software.

Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was "too early" to predict the impacts of ChatGPT at school level, but that it would be "keeping a close eye" on any developments.

"There is clearly a need for the education system to stay informed about technological advancements, and for young people to be reminded of their responsibilities to behave ethically in a digital world," he said.

"We will be keeping a close eye on how this develops and if it does become a problem we will certainly be pressing the government to provide guidance and support."

Mr Barton added it was his hope advanced technologies could be used "in ways that enhance teaching practices, provide new learning opportunities and improve the accessibility of education for all".

But he admitted "integrity and safeguarding" would need to be "kept at the forefront", regarding any new approaches to assessments or examinations.

Elsewhere, Sarah Hannafin, Senior Policy Advisor at the National Association of Headteachers, said: "There are so few GCSE or A level qualifications which have any non-exam assessment - and for those that do it is mostly practical.

"It is therefore highly unlikely any student would be able to use this and for it be counted towards a qualification.

"Some might use it for homework, but teachers know their students extremely well and would be likely to spot any change in writing style or level of attainment."

Asked if ChatGPT could force a rewrite of the methods in which students are assessed, Dr Pickles said a "significant overhaul" is likely to be needed in the future.

The view was backed by Dr Sreedharan who added the "only" way to foolproof the current system would be to re-think how assessments are conducted.

A spokesperson for Ofqual, the government department which regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England, said it was discussing with relevant parties in the education sector about "additional guidance" which might be needed to meet the challenges of ChatGPT.