Following the one year anniversary of OpenAI’s publicly accessible generative AI writing tool, ChatGPT, now is an excellent time to examine how it has influenced education. As a principal and supervisor, I always encouraged teachers to consider three key questions when reflecting on a lesson or unit of study: What worked? What didn’t? What am I going to do about it tomorrow? These questions may also help us evaluate what has happened in the last year.

After working in education for more than 20 years as a teacher and administrator in both secondary and higher education, I have seen a great deal of change, but this past year has truly felt like a watershed moment in education. Much of that change is happening right in front of us, but some of the biggest impacts may not be fully realized until the students who are now in high school, go to college and then enter the workforce – in other words, six or more years from now.

When the alterations wrought by ChatGPT are compounded with the global pandemic, documented learning loss, increased student absenteeism and high levels of teacher burnout, education has shifted on an unprecedented scale. Here are some of my thoughts about what we have seen and may experience in the future.

Generative AI is not driving the bus

I think most educators agree that much like the internet upended education decades ago, generative AI writing is forcing us to re-examine pedagogical and curricular approaches. A few school districts banned ChatGPT right at the outset only to reverse course weeks or months. Early glimpses of what ChatGPT was capable of producing concerned many educators, perhaps not by its existence, but by its potential to escalate the instances of cheating, thereby interrupting actual learning.

Tyton’s Time for Class 2023 report Generative AI in Higher Ed* found that nearly half of students surveyed are regular users of generative AI, and 75 percent of students noted they will continue to use the technology even if faculty or institutions ban it. However their use of the tool isn't what most intrigues me. Although there is still some worry that students will use it to shortcut the critical thinking needed for learning, I’m encouraged by teachers’ demonstrated adjustments in instruction and assessment by intentionally incorporating ChatGPT or by designing learning activities that make its use irrelevant to the learning outcome. Ultimately, this is one genie we cannot put back in the bottle. Just like students will never return to a day where their access to research is limited to the printed books at their fingertips, generative AI tools are becoming increasingly embedded in our society, especially the workplace, and students will be counting on educators to prepare them for that world.

Formative writing lives on with ChatGPT, perhaps even thrives!

Teaching is a relational pursuit, and I suspect that one fear many of us had about ChatGPT is that teaching students how to write and the use of writing to learn would somehow be diminished. After all, students can use ChatGPT to write and revise, even help ideate and find sources. However, if anything is clear from the last 12 months, it is that writing instruction is even more critical than before. Some elements of the writing practices might look a bit different, but teachers remain instrumental in guiding students in its use. For example, in a Turnitin blog post we delve into five tips for safeguarding good writing practices and navigating AI misuse.

Generative AI can level the playing field

We have all had students who are learning English alongside our content. We’ve seen our students struggle to communicate in English, to convey complex thoughts that come easily in their first language but are limited by their English fluency. Immersion in an English environment is often the experience of students acquiring English proficiency, and through a gradual transition, many students struggle, often finding it easier to content areas that are not as deeply entrenched in written language.

The opportunity to improve that process now exists. With ChatGPT, students can write in their first language and have ChatGPT translate the piece into English with far greater complexity and nuance than the simple translation Google Translate would generate. Layering in intentional revisions and edits can provide students even more experience seeing the semantic structure unfold before their eyes. In my own classroom, I struggled to give the time and attention each language learner truly needed, but it is possible now for students to revise over and over again, each time seeing new arrangements of words, tenses and sentence structure of the thoughts they originally created. The opportunity for making meaning is magic, and language acquisition is only one area where generative AI has the potential to be used as a tool for equity.

In six to ten years, we will see a startling new revelation about instruction

I find the retrospective looks at paradigm shifts fascinating. Think about how the workplace has evolved since the global COVID-19 pandemic. Consider how education has changed since the pandemic. Even more dramatic will be the changes today’s students experience in their careers. What questions will they be asked during job interviews? Perhaps a key question won’t focus on their most successful project, but rather ask the candidate to explain how they used generative AI writing to gain efficiency or expand their thinking in their most successful project.

The adjustments educators need to make now are still unfolding. Similar to how some employers are asking employees to come back into the office, to facilitate personal collaboration and engagement, employers may consider asking employees to use ChatGPT to help them brainstorm and convey some ideas and strategies. This expectation might wane for a few years as we clamor for workers who simply are skilled in prompt engineering, but we need writers and the pendulum may swing back.

Generative AI tools, be they in art or writing, will never read our minds to include personal experiences with words on a page. I’m not saying that the efficiencies of generative AI will decline because they will accelerate. However, the ability to convey complex thoughts in written words will always be needed, and we cannot forget that at its core, writing is about thinking. While generative AI may change the way writing is produced, the thinking behind it will always be needed - perhaps even more so.

The impact of this on instruction and assessment is that we as educators will need to hone our craft on the fly – in the short term – relying on instinct, shared experiences from colleagues and emerging experts to help us understand how to best serve our students. It will take some time for pedagogical refinements to filter into teaching programs in formalized preparation for new teachers and professional learning for existing teachers.

And let’s not forget the curriculum and support materials that equip teachers to teach. Understanding our teaching world with generative AI will also drive significantly revised learning standards, outcomes, formative assessments, and high-stakes assessments. Textbooks, learning materials, tutoring, instructional support, and special education will all likely change.

As we reflect on the last year and look to the future, it is a good time to revisit those three critical questions to ask ourselves and each other: What worked? What didn’t? What are we going to do about it tomorrow?

About the author

Patti West-Smith is the Senior Director of Global Customer Engagement at Turnitin.