Kathy Purviance-Snow poses for a photo in her computer lab at Snohomish High School on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Snohomish, WA. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Kathy Purviance-Snow poses for a photo in her computer lab at Snohomish High School on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Snohomish, WA. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

To ban or embrace ChatGPT? Local teachers fight AI with AI — or don’t

“It has fundamentally changed my teaching in really stressful and exciting ways,” an EvCC teacher said. At all levels of education, ChatGPT poses a tricky question.

EVERETT — Several times in the past year, Snohomish High School teacher Kathy Purviance-Snow has suspected students of using artificial intelligence to do their homework.

Her district uses Turnitin, a software that detects what percent of an assignment has been plagiarized or made with generative artificial intelligence. Purviance-Snow, a civics and business teacher, gets suspicious at anything above 25%. When the score is above 50%, she strongly suspects AI misuse.

Or as older generations might call it: cheating.

One year after OpenAI released its chatbot ChatGPT, schools in Snohomish County are looking for ways to promote and enforce academic honesty as cheating has become easier than ever.

The Everett and Snohomish school districts blocked access to the software on its devices as a short-term solution. Other districts, like Edmonds and Lake Stevens, decided not to ban AI.

Chris Bailey, director of technology at the Edmonds School District, said it was an “equity concern.” He said students who had personal or family electronic devices still would have been able to access the chatbot regardless.

Everett Community College doesn’t use any detection software.

Meanwhile, school districts like Snohomish and Edmonds are sharing new codes of conduct addressing artificial intelligence.

I try to err on the side of grace’

Purviance-Snow notes the rise in cheating was accompanied by the sudden rise of remote learning during the pandemic.

“Kids have lost a little bit of that grit, a little bit of that desire to actually learn, they just want to get done,” she said. “They just want to turn something in.”

With ChatGPT, Purviance-Snow said some teachers have gone “old school” and only allow students to turn in handwritten assignments.

But that leaves teachers to check manually.

Purviance-Snow trusts Turnitin as a tool to analyze her student’s work. Examples of questions she asks when grading include, “Are they using words outside of their lexicon?” or “Does the text’s voice match previous assignments from the student?”

When she calls out a student, she gives them the chance to own up to their decision and redo the assignment.

“I try to err on the side of grace because kids make mistakes, people make mistakes,” she said.

To Bailey, of Edmonds, detection softwares like Turnitin are not reliable.

“One of the challenges with those technologies is that they’re leveraging artificial intelligence. It’s sort of AI competing with AI,” he said. “We’re on the lookout for a tool that we feel is safe and appropriate to use.”

‘Dig a little bit deeper’

Purviance-Snow thinks AI has a place in education. She has used it herself to “level-down” textbooks she says are written for the college level. It saves her time.

“We don’t want to be Luddites,” she said, referencing the 19th century British textile workers who broke textile factory machines in violent protests against worker exploitation that came with industrialization.

Purviance-Snow has also heard of a local student whose work was flagged for AI use. The student acknowledged using Grammarly, a software that corrects punctuation, grammar and improves readability. She thinks that should be allowed.

Late last year, Bailey led a school board work session about artificial intelligence. The result was a new Student AI Code of Conduct.

The code of conduct, written with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Association of Educational Service Districts, highlights the need for teachers to “have access to students’ authentic displays of learning.”

The information will now be part of the district’s annual digital citizenship training for students.

Other institutions are including students to create their policies.

In Edmonds, the approach has been to stress to students the risks of becoming too dependent on AI, as well as its inherent biases, Bailey said.

“We can’t just trust whatever it says,” Bailey said. “We need to dig a little bit deeper and try to understand the sources behind the content that’s being generated for us.”

‘Stressful and exciting ways’

At Everett Community College, some faculty members have asked the college to buy detection software.

Hannah Lovett, the school’s director of educational technology, said the college fears false positives and creating a climate of constant suspicion.

History professor Derek Nelson is also concerned about undue suspicion toward underserved students.

Once, he emailed a student he thought might have used AI. The student denied it and Nelson felt like the trust was broken.

Since then, he has preferred talking to students about what they think the AI policies should be. Nelson hopes to make grades less important in learning.

“AI is really breaking our grading schemes, and I think that might be a good thing,” he said. “Forcing us to create assessments that encourage authentic learning.”

Five professors and three administrators who spoke to The Daily Herald were enthusiastic about using AI to advance learning. But there’s a generational gap.

Nelson said he’s seen an older faculty member decide to retire on the spot when they learned about ChatGPT.

To ease the change, the college has organized events — mostly for faculty — to learn about the role of AI in education.

Many professors are rethinking assignments.

Right after ChatGPT launched at the end of November 2022, Dana Harker, an English professor, started seeing papers written using the tool.

They were miles off-topic and very different from students’ previous work. None passed.

After panicking, she decided to lean in.

“It has fundamentally changed my teaching in really stressful and exciting ways,” she said.

In English 101, her first assignment now has students run their essays through ChatGPT for feedback. This way they know she knows about it.

Harker started talking to students to understand why they used it. Usually, they’re busy or lack confidence.

“It’s deeply connected to the self. There’s that pressure to feel like they have to be perfect,” she said. “They don’t want to sound like themselves, because they’re afraid that they’ll get it wrong.”

‘She just got the answers’

In November, Avery Colinas, a student journalist at Cavelero Mid High School in Lake Stevens wrote an article about AI’s effect on education.

In an interview, the ninth grader said artificial intelligence makes some assignments feel like busy work.

“Why are we learning to do it if we can get it done in seconds?” she asked.

She added: “I also feel like it’s making humans almost, like, slowly becoming less necessary.”

In essay-based classes, plagiarism detectors are an effective deterrent, she said.

Her English teacher asks students to put away their phones and verifies document change history for copy-pastes. A software called Google Classroom can also detect ChatGPT.

Colinas said students do cheat in math class using the Photomath app. First released in 2014, Photomath gives not only the answer to problems, but also the work behind it. Teachers can’t prove AI-assisted work, Colinas said.

Colinas said she doesn’t cheat on her take-home assignments. She wants the practice. With math, it’s too easy to fall behind. At the end of January, her work paid off with an A.

But a friend of hers used it all year. After getting only perfect scores on homework, the teacher was surprised to see that friend fail the final test, according to Colinas.

“My friend,” Colinas said, “she didn’t learn anything from math this year. She just got the answers.”

But the exam was only 10% of the grade. So her friend ended up with a B.

‘What it can’t do’

For now, software like Photomath only works well with algebra, said Chris Killingstad, a math professor at the community college. His classes focus on calculus.

“At the calculus level, like there’s a point where it stops working very well,” he said. “And students have figured that out.”

In some tests, he allows computers. That confuses the students. But Killingstad says they still need to understand the curriculum.

“They realize, ‘Yeah, that’s not going to save me,’” he said.

And sometimes programs give the wrong answer.

Still, he thinks AI will become inescapable.

“I think it’s good for them, though, to go in and just encounter it and see what it can do and what it can’t do,” he said. “At some point, we’re going to have to start trusting that system.”

But solving problems by hand is still part of the learning process, he added.

Anusha Venkatachalam teaches engineering and computer science. Engineering is problem-solving something that programs just can’t do, she said.

In programming, it’s trickier.

A few times, students have turned in assignments different from the rest of the class but very similar to each other — enough for suspicion, but not proof.

‘It feels soulless’

Colinas’ journalism teacher, Riley Fraser, also teaches English, speech and debate classes at Cavelero Mid High.

Over half a dozen times since the beginning of the year, Fraser has caught students using generative artificial intelligence.

Sometimes, he has noticed students trust AI too much, handing in essays bearing no resemblance to the assignment prompt.

He calls it a “new wrinkle in the conversation of academic honesty.”

Fraser said cheating can show a lack of confidence. When confronted, students often own up to it and explain how stressed they’ve been.

“Most of the time, the writing that they’ve already shown me has been perfectly fine,” he said.

Fraser said he knows his students well enough to recognize when the work turned in isn’t theirs.

“It feels soulless, it feels so very by-the-numbers and very specific,” he said. “The second you read it, you just have a feeling — this just does not feel like something a human being wrote.”

Rather than fighting software with software, he believes in building relationships with students to prevent cheating.

“You need to have strong relationships with your students to make sure they know that you care,” he said, “not just about their performance, but about them as people.”

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

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