At the Future of Education Technology Conference (known as FETC), I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Monica Burns about ChatGPT.
Monica is an author, speaker, and former New York City public school teacher. Her passion is helping educators make technology integration meaningful and sustainable. Monica’s website ClassTechTips.com helps educators place “tasks before apps” by promoting deeper learning with technology.
Read or listen in as we discuss what’s exciting Monica and I right now in the world of ed tech, and how the free artificial intelligence tool everyone’s talking about — ChatGPT — can help you reduce your workload, or as Monica sees it, “accelerate your workload.”
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ANGELA: So we’re going to dive into one particular tool that I’m most excited about right now, which is ChatGPT. This is an artificial intelligence tool for writing. It was just released for free to the public in November 2022 and I see so much potential for it. I also have a lot of trepidation about how it’s going to impact the online environment — what happens when ChatGPT gets into the hands of folks who have nefarious intent and so on. But let’s start by telling listeners about this tool.
What is ChatGPT? How does it work? What are your thoughts on the potential uses and misuses of it in society at large? And then we’ll get into the educational implications and how it can really help teachers.
MONICA: ChatGPT is really exciting —and we can say exciting about a lot of things even if we’re a little hesitant, right? I think it’s exciting to watch because we don’t know how it’s quite going to turn out just yet. So it’s technology — artificial intelligence — and essentially is a chatbot where instead of Googling a keyword to find an answer, you’re putting in a full sentence — specific queries and really specific in some cases.
One of my favorite examples to share is where you could type this into ChatGPT: I want to cook lasagna for two people tonight. I want to make chicken parmesan for four people tomorrow, and I want to make eggplant parm for six the next day. Make a grocery list for me of everything I’m going to need.
Wow! I never thought about this!
It’s one of my favorite examples I’ve been telling people because it is just like Give me the recipe, but then also I might google the recipe for something and be happy with it once I find what I need, but if you’ve ever tried to sort through all the things, right? It’s going to automatically give you that full shopping list — and that’s huge. So it’s essentially giving you options to ask questions that are much more dynamic than you might in the past.
So there is that level of I don’t know what I don’t know. I will sometimes use examples from television shows when I’m doing a workshop, and I’ll use a cast list or famous characters or something — usually Monica, Ross, and Rachel or something like that. I was on the plane coming here and I said, you know what, let me just try this out. And I typed in, ‘Make a list of the characters from the show, Cheers’. And it gave me 20 characters. And then I said, I don’t want Sam Malone, Diane Chambers, you know? And then I put in just give me their first names and it made a brand new list for me with just their first names.
You have to think creatively about what is even possible and that’s an ongoing brain-muscle journey for me. So coming back to the [question] how would you explain it? It’s a chatbot where you can ask it to respond to a question that’s essentially generating a text-based response. There are HTML options and table options too, but let’s think most likely write a text-based response where you are getting specific answers that you can continue to follow up on to tweak to get kind of the right thing.
Those are kind of lifestyle examples with the recipe, right? You might also say, Give me 10 ideas for fill in the blank. Or I want to make a present, you know, I want to figure out what present to get this person in my life and they like these three things. What can I do? So you can really go in a lot of different directions and I think the best way to understand it is to play with it a little bit and see what happens as you put in the kind of questions you might ask Google to get started and then just start dialing up what’s possible.
That’s an interesting approach because I think a lot of people, me included, have thought of it more as like, I would go to this if I needed text for something. You know, like if I need help writing something, like composing an email maybe or writing an article. But what you’re suggesting is using it like a more intelligent form of Google giving you better search results and more detailed information that’s personalized to what you want.
Yeah and I think there’s a scale there for sure of what’s possible. And for me, that idea about the recipe, I didn’t come up with that myself. My TikTok algorithm now has moved away from silly prank videos or funny baby stuff to a lot of this ChatGPT ‘did you know’ kind of videos. And so for me right now, especially with something that’s new like this, my ears are open and I want to hear what people are trying. It makes me think of something else that I might want to try and do.
And so that’s where like you mentioned in your question, there’s a level of hesitation or trepidation like, Where’s this going to go? And I’m there with those feelings too. But at the same time, I’m very curious about what’s possible with this type of technology. That’s one of the reasons that I’m watching it so closely.
Yes. And I feel like with this kind of stuff, it’s not going to be stopped. We have AI now to generate images. We have AI now to write text. It is here, it is not going to go away. It’s like lamenting the invention of the smartphone because the world has changed for better and for worse because of the smartphone. So I’m just looking at it like not all of this is going to be fantastic. I am in no way that naive, but I also know that there’s a lot of needs for teachers right now, and I think this can be a really useful tool for them. So I’m trying to focus on what is here to get excited about.
Yeah. And I’m so glad at how you asked that because it’s very much where my mindset is. The Atlantic had a really great article about essays and what this means for student writers, and that’s been a lot of the conversation and that’s important. But I am not thinking about this in the recommendations I’m making as a student tool. At all. It doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the potential for students or the pitfalls for students, because that’s totally there.
But I think it’s really important for listeners to think about this as not a student tool. It’s not designed for students. It’s not COPPA compliant. Right. So all the things that we think about when we make choices for what tools are vetted for classroom use, this is not on that list yet. Right? It’s not ready and approved for student use in a consumer market standpoint.
So with that in mind, it doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the fact that we might have an eighth grader who over the weekend writes their whole essay, then comes in on Monday and shows all their friends how to use this. And now we have to tackle that challenge. Right? Like in the past, you might have had a student bring in not the best current events article to talk about in the print newspaper. Because I’ve had that experience too, right? There’s always going to be disruptive things like that. This might be a little bit more wild than we could’ve imagined.
And so I say that all because for the teacher side of things — the optimizing workflow, working smarter, not harder — is where my head is at.
Like, I need to write a reminder email for a field trip and tell parents not to forget this, and I can put that in ChatGPT because I’ve tried that already, you know? And that has worked really well to generate an email. Or, I wrote a sentence and I don’t love how it sounds and I’m going to plug it into an email, but I don’t love this. I might ask ChatGPT to rewrite this sentence in a more friendly way. Or, you know, the same way we use the thesaurus when we’re stuck on a word. We can do that with a whole sentence to paraphrase or rewrite it.
I’ve even used it for resource searches — I made a list for a blog post of tools for video essays that I love. Am I forgetting any? And I put that in ChatGPT and it gave me a couple more ideas and I’m like, yeah, I don’t know about that one. Or ooh, I totally forgot about that one. And then I added it in and I write my own paragraph description.
If you are a teacher who makes videos for your flipped classroom and you just want a quicker way to make video descriptions before you plug it onto YouTube, that’s one great thing. If you want to take something that you’ve written and simplify the vocabulary, maybe differentiate a prompt for a different group of students, so those creative teacher uses that are time-saving.
The word I come back to is not just optimize, but accelerate — like really accelerate your workflow because you’re working much smarter than harder. And there’s some great things in there that I think are worthy of a teacher’s consideration — especially if they’re curious about it — they can try it out with their own workflow in mind.
Yeah, that’s a good idea. To just get in there, play around with it see what it does, and then figure out what you need. I mean, that example of, I’m trying to convey this very difficult concept to a parent about, you know, how do I say this tactfully and I don’t think I’m nailing it. Run it through ChatGPT, see what it comes up with and then you can prompt it and say, this wasn’t quite what I wanted. Make it more like this or take out this part or add something about this and kind of tweak it. And from what I hear, people get the best results when they come in not expecting exactly what they want upfront, but to be prepared to go through it a couple times and sort of niche down as to what they want.
Yeah, and I’m a big fan of templates. I use canned responses a lot in my emails: you want to schedule meeting, here’s the response that I use. I’ve got all those in my email set up already as canned responses and that doesn’t feel robotic to me. Before I send it, I usually add a line or ask someone a question about something or make a comment about the weather to personalize it.
I think I’m taking that same mindset into ChatGPT, that this is, again, that acceleration. It’s not a replacement or a substitution, it’s just given me that start to get going, and then I can truly make it my own.
Yeah. And as a writer, I mean, I, I think you understand too that like the blank page is the most daunting thing. Starting from nothing is so hard. Editing what someone else has written or what a chatbot has written is a much easier place to get started and can kind of get you thinking about what you want to do.
Yeah, and it’s interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about this as a writer. I write books, I have a lot of blog content. I’ve been doing this for a decade and I’ve written who knows how many words. And so I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT also with my blogger hat on. And just in the end of December, beginning of January, I’ve put maybe three or four blog posts up and at the very bottom it has a little disclaimer that says “I use ChatGPT for some inspiration to help me outline this or to help paragraphs”. And I’m not saying it verbatim, but something like, I’m looking to try this out. I want to see what it’s like and that’s why I’m doing it here.
But I had a conversation with someone recently around this and I said, I use Grammarly all the time to run my blog post through. I’ve never thought to disclose that because it’s a pretty useful tool that a lot of people use to check their spelling and to make sure their tenses match, and are we going to reach a point where this is so ubiquitous that we still feel very called to put that disclaimer as I’m trying this out on a couple of blog posts to see if I like it, or am I going to put an asterisk every time I generate a title for a YouTube video?
I just don’t know where that’s all going to land. And again, that doesn’t mean that feeling excited about this doesn’t mean I’m dismissive of the implications and the seriousness of all of this. I feel like I can hold both of those truths at the same time.
Yes, but it’s very difficult to know, are we supposed to cite this? Do we need to go through and credit this as a source for our writing. And I like that solution a lot to just acknowledge that I use that, you know? And it kind of normalizes it too. Another way that I saw a teacher using this was someone in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program. She was talking about how she had tried using ChatGPT to rewrite a 10th-grade reading passage at a 3rd-grade level for a student who needed that accommodation. And another has been using ChatGPT to help write IEP goals and she said that cut the workload for that task in half.
I know that trying to find level texts — if you teach 10th grade and you have a kid who’s reading several years below level — and I know we have other good tools out there, but she just copied and pasted the text in there and voila — it was something that her student could read. And when I heard that I was like, this is going to be massive for teachers.
Yeah. I think that’s such a great example. You know, I shared the idea of a prompt or the task, right? Maybe simplifying it or changing the vocabulary or bringing this to this level or that level — those are the kind of pieces that I think are really interesting and exciting, and it’s something that I’m thinking about in those spaces of what is next. And what can a teacher do just to make the most use of their time and everyone’s time?
So good. So I want to close out the show with a takeaway truth. What’s something that you wish every teacher understood about ChatGPT or using artificial intelligence to simplify or as you say, accelerate their workload?
So one thing I want everyone to think about is what are they doing that is giving them that hesitation or that moment of pause, like what are they getting blocked on? And we’ve talked about writer’s block — it might be, Ugh, I don’t want to answer this email right now. I don’t know quite how to say this.
So if you’re mindful of those blocked moments, that’s a time to try this out, like if you’re saying, I don’t know exactly how to word this field trip reminder, or I don’t love this sentence I’m about to send to my principal, I think it needs to be a little softer, but I don’t want to add exclamation points. Try that and look for these organic moments, and use that as your vehicle for exploring this new space.
So Monica, tell people where they can learn more from you because you have so much practical information from teachers and I want them to be following your work. I think you do such an awesome job just getting down to the heart of things. You know, you’re not easily influenced by this latest trend or this latest thing. I mean, you really are focused on authentic, purposeful teaching and learning and I want more folks to follow you and be learning from you because you were such a great leader in the ed tech industry.
Well, I appreciate that so much. And you know, my blog is classtechtips.com. We celebrated 10 years last year. So the blog has a big search bar and people can search for and find things. And then my podcast, the Easy Ed Tech podcast I started in 2019 is coming up on four years already, and here I talk to educators about workflow as well as thinking about what’s new in technology and of course just how to make tech a little bit easier.
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