At North Hills Middle School in Pittsburgh, Joe Welch is known as the guy you go to when you’re trying to figure out that newfangled technology. He’s one of those teachers who just naturally runs toward, not away, from the latest software or app. “When something new comes out,” says Welch, who teaches eighth grade American history, “the best teachers think, ‘How can I apply this in my own classroom?’”
So after ChatGPT was released, Welch didn’t hesitate to try it out. He was shocked by the incredible advances in usability of the AI interface and how easy and intuitive it was to use.
At the time, Welch, who has been teaching for 16 years, was leading his students through a unit about the branches of American government. He wanted students to understand that everyone—even 12 and 13 year olds—had a civic duty to engage. Welch planned to have his class write letters to their state representative. But he knew from previous years that kids tended to find the assignment intimidating. Perhaps, he thought, ChatGPT could help.
Rather than having his students Google a letter template that would have spit out a “stagnant opening line,” Welch says he wanted to test out the generative capabilities of ChatGPT. Projecting via smartboard at the front of the classroom, he first asked ChatGPT, “How do I contact the congressional representative in Pennsylvania’s 17th district?” He followed up with asking the chatbot how to craft an email to the lawmaker, and then how to personalize it. Finally, he asked ChatGPT how to “start a letter about [insert bill here] to send to Rep. Chris Deluzio in the 17th District in Pennsylvania.”
Within seconds, ChatGPT delivered a series of sentence starters that could be customized by each student. “I didn’t ask, ‘Write an email to...’” Welch says. “I was asking the how. I think that was important.”
“It left avenues for students to put in their own data and perspectives,” Welch says. “[ChatGPT was like] a personalized Google.” Ultimately, Welch’s 119 students were quick to adapt. They successfully used the new AI bot to contact the Pennsylvania congressman’s office on a number of issues that connected to their passions.
Welch was interviewed as part of the Walton Family Foundation's research into how ChatGPT is being used by teachers and students.
Welch believes ChatGPT can be leveraged across content areas to help students who struggle with writing engage with course material at a rigorous level. “[When] we’ve done this [assignment] in the past, there’s a barrier to writing that sometimes students experience, and that becomes the focus rather than the advocacy,” Welch says. “AI allowed me to rid them of a barrier to that process.”
Which is not to say that Welch doesn’t have real concerns about using the new tool in his classroom. In particular, he has reservations about matters relating to privacy and the quality of ChatGPT’s source material. “Not only do I have questions about where that data is going and how it is being tracked and used, I also would like to learn more about how certain sourcing is developed on the back end,” Welch says.
I don’t see this as a replacement to anything a teacher can do in a classroom.
Yet, to Welch, the potential benefits outweigh the down sides. “I don’t want to ignore that it’s out there,” Welch says. “As a history teacher, I don’t want to stray away from a difficult topic. I want to educationalize it.”
Welch believes the widespread fears over ChatGPT completely upending classrooms are overblown. “I don’t see this as a replacement to anything a teacher can do in a classroom,” he says. “ChatGPT can’t read a student’s expression. There’s no emotion to it. It can’t tell if a student is confused about its response.”
Rather, “teachers can and should use it and not dance around the idea that this exists,” Welch says. “But it needs to be used symbiotically. Teachers can level this up.”