Technological Leap or Cheating Tool? Why L.A. Schools Have Banned ChatGPT

Educational institutions are worried about its content and academic integrity, some educators, however, see the chatbot’s potential

The internet has been abuzz with all things ChatGPT, a language model used to quickly generate written content, since its November launch, with some declaring that it marks everything from the beginning of the end of millions of jobs to chatbot lobbying and disinformation campaigns and an escalation toward a world overrun by robotic overlords. 

So, what is ChatGPT?

To understand the above question, ask Chat GPT itself: “I am pre-trained on a massive amount of text data, which allows me to understand and generate human-like text,” it recently told LAMag. “I can be fine-tuned for specific natural language processing tasks such as language translation, text summarization, and question answering.”

Simply put, you can ask ChatGPT almost anything—within reason—and it’ll give you an answer. “How do I combine PDF files on my Mac?” could be useful. Otherwise, you can command it to do something a little more thought-provoking such as, “Analyze the significance of silicone butt injections through the lens of Socrates.” Whether the Ancient Greek philosopher would have been impressed by the answer, ChatGPT won’t be able to tell you.

The staunchest refusal to incorporate the controversial chatbot, however, has come from school districts across the country. Rightfully so, many districts have banned access to (Elon Musk-founded) creator OpenAI’s language program—full name: Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer—out of concern for students. Cheating, plagiarism, and exposure to incorrect or toxic content have largely been the rationale behind banning the program that’s massive knowledge database gives remarkably articulate answers to questions posed by users or even—ahem— requests to write news articles about ChatGPT.

In December, within weeks of ChatGPT’s launch, LAUSD blocked access to the chatbot “to protect academic honesty,” until they’ve conducted a risk/benefit assessment, a spokesperson told LAMag. New York City and Seattle public schools followed suit shortly after. 

ChatGPT does have several issues that will hopefully be dealt with as the language program continues to develop and according to some educators, banning it, for now, appears to be the right call. Even Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, has said that its developers are only getting started.

“ChatGPT is incredibly limited but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness,” Altman tweeted. “It’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now. It’s a preview of progress; we have lots of work to do on robustness and truthfulness.”

Altman did not respond to a request to be interviewed by LAMag for this article.

Of course, along with all the mayhem of panicky worry, ChatGPT has spurred awe and excitement, as users have continued to showcase its massive leap in AI capabilities. Organizations such as Buzzfeed have been implementing its use in content creation and Microsoft dumped billions into its future.

“We’re at an amazing moment in the history of technology,” Dr. Christian Terwiesch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania tells LAMag. Terwiesch recently made headlines when he announced that he had tested ChatGPT on an MBA-level course exam. It would have received a B or B-.

ChatGPT has also been shown to be able to write well enough to fool scientists, perform well on English and computer science tests, pass law school exams, and even pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam. 

Despite its seemingly infinite capabilities and rare lack of refusal to grant even the most obscure requests, ChatGPT has been problematic for school districts, especially when it comes to plagiarism. 

“It was a little worrisome when we were first looking at [ChatGPT] because the usual systems we use to detect plagiarism [don’t work]” Christine Holten, Director of Writing Programs at UCLA told LAMag. “But I feel like we’re in a better position as composition teachers than some other faculty members who don’t get to go through the writing process with their students.” 

Some help might be on the way. Recently, Edward Tian, a student at Princeton, reportedly developed an app to detect AI-generated text.

As for Terwiesch, he advocates banning the new tech for certain aspects of learning. When it comes to skill acquisition or assessing a student or class on their comprehension, the use of ChatGPT to cheat would be harmful. However, he says he sees potential value in its use for material engagement.

“[There] are learning settings—tests, homework questions—where we want the student to engage with the material, so, [for example, if you would] compare the big French philosophers in their view of the afterlife,” he says. “In the old days, you would go to the library, you would spend three hours reading, you’d write something, and what mattered was really not that you wrote it down, what mattered is that you immersed yourself in the material.” 

A student could use ChatGPT by telling it to respond from the perspective of a philosopher, Terwiesch said. It would then provide them the ability to ask any questions they pose and learn from how the philosophy might respond to them.

This, of course, only works if the answers are always correct, which isn’t the case for now.

“One of our instructors asked it to [have] a conversation with Alan Turing,” Holten said. “He said that what was produced, some of it was just wrong.” Jokingly, she suggests that until it improves, students could assess how well ChatGPT performed at providing correct answers.

As we compare two competing extremes—a world without ChatGPT and a world overrun by AI that concocts mundane emails and annihilates entire workforces through automation— what is to come will be anyone’s guess. But as it was with the internet, we’ll probably just learn to live with it.

“I don’t think of this as a job killer machine—I think we will see new opportunities open up,” Terwiesch said. “We’re not going to run out of work for us, so take this as a fascinating achievement from smart computer scientists and engineers and for us as a society let’s find a way to bring this technology to use.”

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