Helias Catholic High School is using artificial intelligence as a tool for classroom learning this year while trying to teach students about how to use it ethically and responsibly.
Helias teachers and administration had been working for a while toward a more process-driven approach to writing classes in which students would do more work in class and receive real-time feedback and coaching from their teachers. Then ChatGPT came on the national scene in November of 2022, and it "fast-forwarded the conversation," said Helias Principal Spencer Allen.
With the arrival of artificial intelligence came new concerns about cheating on assignments. But Allen said Helias also saw an obligation for educators to use it as a tool and teach students who will eventually encounter it in the workplace as adults how to use it ethically.
Teachers in several Helias classes -- including English, theology, Spanish and debate -- have been using artificial intelligence large language models such as ChatGPT, Perplexity and Claude in controlled ways to make their classes more efficient and assist students in their learning.
For instance, in theology, students practiced debating doctrine with ChatGPT, asking it to take the opposite side and giving it instructions to have a civil debate and to monitor the tone of the students' responses for whether they were becoming uncivil. In debate class, students did something similar with an AI model specifically dedicated to debating.
In Spanish, students instructed the AI to tell their favorite children's story in Spanish, and then they had to translate it back to be critiqued by the AI.
"And then it gave them immediate feedback that would have taken the teacher a night to grade," Allen said.
In writing classes, AI can provide a rough-draft feedback software so students can practice learning from critiques and revising their work before hearing from their teacher.
In the spring, Allen described the attitude of Helias educators toward AI as nervous. Then, as they began cautiously exploring AI, some excitement emerged.
Allen said a task force of four to six educators began meeting to explore the field of AI and stay on top of the research. That group presented to the rest of the staff this fall, and Allen has been presenting to other educators in the area.
Now the attitude has improved as teachers see the rewards of carefully implementing AI, including increased interest and engagement from students.
"We're their only chance before they head into the real world to show them how to use this with integrity and ethics," Allen said. "We can ignore that it exists, and they're going to use it anyway without anyone ever showing them where the guardrails are.
"Is it an answer to tell the students that they can just use it freely whenever they want? Of course not. But it's also not an answer to ban it, to tell them that they can't use it at all, because we know they will, and we know that as professionals, we will."
The ethical conversation leads to the principle Allen and teachers have been sharing with students: task vs. formation.
"A football coach would never let his team in the weight room use dollies or wheelbarrows or pulleys to lift the heavy weights up and down, because that's formation. They're supposed to build big muscles," Allen said. "But that same football coach is not a hypocrite if in his backyard he's using a dolly or a wheelbarrow to lift heavy bricks around because he's doing a landscaping project, right? Task versus formation."
Teachers try to convey to students that they are shortchanging themselves if they use AI instead of learning things themselves.
Preventing such cheating can also be solved by doing more process-driven work in class.
This year, Helias has added new junior-level English classes in composition and rhetoric. In these classes, rather than essays being assigned as homework, students work on the writing process in class with their teachers, which both prevents cheating by using AI and allows teachers to give them instant feedback and help.
Nathan Kempf, who teaches dual credit English and contemporary issues/debate, said he used Perplexity this week to brainstorm topics and see the process of narrowing topics.
"It's also bringing writing back into the classroom, where I think it belongs," he said.
"A writing classroom should look like an old school newsroom in the movies," Kempf said. "There should be lots of people doing lots of things. There should be some noise in the classroom. There should be people exchanging ideas, and there should be an editor or whatever you want to call it going around and checking in on everybody."
As part of teaching the ethics of using ChatGPT in a writing class, Kempf explained how having AI write the paper for you does no good.
"Your calculus teacher, Mrs. Verslues, she does not need you to solve this calculus problem, and the world doesn't need you to solve it," Kempf told his students. "What the world needs is for you to solve it so something in you changes, not the world. And so I said the same thing is going on with writing a research paper.
"The product is important, but it's not the most important thing. The process of getting there is important."
Education on AI
Allen helped put together a session on AI and its uses and constraints in education for Diocesan teachers this fall.
In his presentations to other teachers, Allen pointed out AI is still prone to error. It can contradict itself or use made up sources, so teachers and students still need to verify things and go directly to sources.
There's also a big difference in quality between the free and paid versions of some apps, he said, which can also bring up equity concerns.
Some people are eager to dismiss the merits of AI, he said.
"Those people who dismiss it for accuracy are correct, that's why we have to train our students to always trust but verify, right? But those who dismiss it for mediocrity ... if you know how to do your prompts right and be very specific what you're looking for, it produces quality stuff, and it will only get better," Allen said.
Teachers can also use it to make their work more efficient, giving them more time to work on other things or spend time at home with their families, Allen said. They can use it to develop a scoring rubric or ideas for a plan for a particular lesson.
"It's a tool that just makes things more efficient with proper oversight," Allen said.