Reflecting on AI and learning, a student offers four insights gleaned from firsthand interactions with ChatGPT.
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
This quote, often attributed to the poet and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats, captures the essence of education. A timeless goal is to light a fire within the hearts and minds of learners. Today, a groundbreaking invention stands ready to fuel the fire and revolutionize the educational landscape forever: AI chatbots.
The release of large language model (LLM) interfaces such as ChatGPT and Bard has sparked intense debates about their integration into and implications within educational institutions. Critics have raised valid concerns regarding academic dishonesty, as the remarkable capabilities of AI chatbots to produce human-like responses and intricate computer codes can be exploited for difficult-to-detect cheating in academia. Consequently, Seattle and New York City Public Schools, along with the Los Angeles Unified School District, swiftly imposed bans on AI chatbots on their campuses.Footnote1 The controversy surrounding AI chatbots also extends to the propagation of misleading information. Users in scientific and legal fields have encountered instances where AI chatbots generate inaccurate and misleading content.Footnote2 If left unmonitored and uncurated, AI-generated material may lead to the inadvertent spread of misinformation, particularly among students. These legitimate concerns provide further support for imposing restrictions on the utilization of AI chatbots in educational settings.
On the other hand, supporters of AI chatbots contend that although precautions must be taken to address the issues noted above, AI technologies represent innovative tools that students need to learn and engage with. The emphasis is on the needs of future society: the digital era demands the development of critical thinking skills and essential abilities to navigate and verify information. This development can be assisted by the ability of AI chatbots to provide large amounts of information in an interactive and interesting way. By asking students to comment on and revise AI-generated content, some educators have pioneered methods for teaching students how to critically evaluate the results of AI chatbots and differentiate reliable information from misleading or inaccurate output.Footnote3
One significant aspect missing from this ongoing debate is students' perspectives and their beliefs in the possible impact of ChatGPT on their education. A May 2023 national survey conducted by the Walton Family Foundation sheds light on this matter: "75% of students believe ChatGPT can help them learn faster and 73% of teachers agree."Footnote4 As a high school student, I wholeheartedly concur. My personal experience with using ChatGPT to learn has made me realize that AI technology can upend educational norms and transform the way we learn and what we learn.
Ever since I was in middle school, I have been self-studying neurological diseases every summer. Initially amazed by the complexity of the human central nervous system (CNS), I gradually built a deep interest in the early diagnosis and innovative treatments of CNS disorders. I read books and articles on these diseases. This past summer, however, ChatGPT became an invaluable tutor and assistant for me (and for free!).
In the summer of 2023, my self-study focused on developing an innovative approach for early detection of body signals (also known as biomarkers) for brain tumors. My engagement with ChatGPT started with the prompt "What are the known biomarkers for CNS cancers?" For this type of question, I usually would have spent hours searching the PubMed database and reading review articles to find the answer. Frequently, I would encounter complex concepts and technical jargon that necessitated additional search and study, a cycle that tends to be both time-assuming and often unproductive. However, in the snap of a finger, ChatGPT listed eight categories of biomarkers, each with clear and concise explanations. I was eager to delve deeper into each of them with ChatGPT's assistance. During my subsequent study, one of the ChatGPT responses particularly piqued my interest: "The oncometabolite 2-hydroxyglutarate (2-HG) produced by the mutant isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH) is a metabolic biomarker for gliomas. IDH-mutated gliomas are generally associated with a better prognosis than their IDH-wildtype counterparts." A series of questions began to surface in my mind: "How exactly is 2-HG formed?" "How does 2-HG affect the cancer itself?" "Why does the IDH mutation produce an oncometabolite but seem to be also favorable for glioma patients?" "Is ChatGPT wrong?" Intrigued, I carefully read several review articles and learned that 2-HG is an oncometabolite because it supports the survival and spread of cancer cells but that IDH mutations, which generate 2-HG, predict a better prognosis.
These paradoxical facts led me to further study the effects of IDH mutations in glioma cancer cells. My reasoning was simple: since IDH mutations cause detrimental effects by generating an oncometabolite, the very same mutations must also have beneficial effects to lead to a better prognosis. I was curious about these beneficial effects. Before the advent of ChatGPT, I assumed that only experts in this field could answer such a question. In the past, if I didn't encounter a simple article that explained the topic, my journey would have ended there. But thanks to ChatGPT, a single prompt was all that lay between me and the answer: "What effects of IDH mutations are detrimental for glioma cancer cells?" Again, ChatGPT showed me its superb capability in collecting and summarizing information: "IDH mutations can lead to a reduction in the production of NADPH, an essential molecule for handling oxidative stress, making the cancer cells more vulnerable to damage from reactive oxygen species." Aha! For a moment, I felt as though I were sitting beside a knowledgeable professor who understands all my naive inquiries and has unlimited time to explain answers to me in straightforward language. ChatGPT was all that I, as a young researcher, could ever ask for.
Yet though ChatGPT is an exceptional tutor with an encyclopedic wealth of knowledge, I consider myself to possess a unique advantage in terms of ingenuity. How so? Knowing that IDH mutations can have both good and bad effects on cancer patients, I asked ChatGPT: "What would you suggest to treat brain cancer with IDH mutations?" ChatGPT outlined only two areas of research, leaving me somewhat disappointed. The two were IDH mutant inhibitors and gene therapy, both of which aim to reverse all effects of IDH mutations, no matter whether they are good or bad. This meant that although 2-HG would no longer be produced, the cancer would also have a better chance of surviving. The fact that ChatGPT highlighted only these two options meant that there wasn't much research in the area, making me excited that I could possibly contribute. An idea began to form in my mind: "Could we not exploit the advantageous activity of IDH mutants to weaken cancer cells, while selectively eliminating the detrimental effect by converting the oncometabolite 2-HG into other, potentially beneficial, metabolites?"
ChatGPT's apparent mediocrity in creative thinking encouraged me to further investigate this hypothesis. I asked: "Could you list all the enzymes that can convert 2-HG into other metabolites?" I was let down again. The response included just one human enzyme, known to be inefficient in glioma cancer. At that moment, I recalled a snippet from my previous studies: some lower organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, often exhibit more diverse and adaptable metabolism than humans. I subsequently searched an enzyme database and identified nine potential candidates for my project. A month of study later, with ChatGPT continuing as my faithful assistant, I formulated an idea and wrote it into a hypothesis paper entitled "A Bacterial Enzyme May Correct 2-HG Accumulation in Human Cancers." Eager for professional feedback, I submitted it to a peer-reviewed journal specializing in cancer metabolism. To my delight, my hypothesis has now been published.Footnote5 One reviewer from NIH even commented that the idea is "intriguing and bold." This is the best award so far for my summer self-studies!
As a result of this outcome, I am reflecting on how my experiences could impact my fellow students and others in the future. Here are four insights I have gleaned from my firsthand interactions with ChatGPT.
1. Any technology can be both beneficial and harmful. The outcome depends on how we use it.
Historically, the advent of transformative technologies—personal computers, the internet, Google, and Wikipedia, for example—has often been met with skepticism and concern at first. Critics have questioned the impact of these technologies on education, warning of potential increased academic dishonesty and diminished learning capabilities. However, over time, students have harnessed these very technologies as powerful learning tools. Across the United States, high schools are implementing one-to-one computing programs—initiatives that equip each student with a device, empowering them to conduct research online, foster their independent learning, and collaborate more effectively with peers. AI technologies can be seen in the same light.
However, the benefits or detriments of AI, like those of any other tool, depend largely on its usage. In the educational system, AI technologies can be utilized effectively to supplement classroom learning and make vast amounts of information readily accessible to students. This would improve learning outcomes and promote a more engaging educational experience. But if misused or relied on too heavily, AI technologies could also harm students' critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities. This highlights how important it is for teachers to craft questions and assignments that not only test knowledge but also stimulate deeper thinking and analysis. The questions and assignments should encourage students to analyze information and data, make connections between knowledge points, solve complex problems, and articulate their reasoning. These skills are needed both in the scientific community and in society. Knowledge is always at hand, but critical thinking skills can be gained only at the crucial learning stages in high school and college.
Another problem is that AI doesn't possess genuine emotions or the ability to truly understand and respond to human feelings. The use of AI could diminish a significant portion of human interaction in the learning process, resulting in a loss of social skills and interpersonal development. To solve this, teachers should allocate more effort to identifying and responding to the emotional needs of their students. They can provide the support, encouragement, and guidance that will motivate students in a way that AI cannot.
2. AI is changing the way we access information. How will the educational system adapt?
Our current educational system is in dire need of an adjustment to reflect transformative innovations. In the past, individuals were required to seek out knowledge, since access to it was limited. This process usually involved rote memorization, sometimes at the expense of a deep understanding of the knowledge. Today, technologies have made this process unnecessary in most cases. But despite the significant societal and technological advances of recent decades, our educational system has remained largely unchanged at its core. Conventional teaching still promotes a tendency among students to cram information from textbooks for mere regurgitation during tests. The emphasis of learning is on correctness and precision, not creativity or analysis.
The reason for this type of education is understandable: the skills needed to use current machines and technologies require rigorous protocols and precision. But the machines surrounding us are becoming "smarter." In the future, AI-controlled automation and the Internet of Things will virtually replace jobs that involve repetitive and routine tasks, eventually challenging conventional learning approaches by making information even more reachable and understandable. At the dawning of the AI era,Footnote6 we should reflect on prospective workforce needs, crucial skills, and the corresponding education and training to meet these needs and provide these skills.
AI technologies will also create more jobs, such as AI specialists, data analysts, and software engineers. Roles that require human traits such as creativity, critical thinking, empathy, and complex problem-solving skills will remain in high demand. Furthermore, new professional classes are on the horizon, including strategic decision-makers, innovative thinkers, AI ethicists, and AI trainers. These roles will be pivotal in navigating the ethical, social, and strategic challenges of AI applications.
With these roles in mind, educational leaders at the high school and college levels should prioritize the development of the essential skills in which humans excel and outshine AI.
The wealth of information collected by AI can be harnessed in tandem with the creativity cultivated within the educational system, resulting in a potent hybrid intelligence system. These dynamic interactions between humans and AI would foster the generation of unique ideas and breakthroughs. My experiences last summer showcase how learners, including high school students like myself, can comprehend challenging subjects and generate new ideas in ways previously unimaginable.
Similarly, greater incentives should be given to crowdsourcing platforms that value and reward public contributions of human intelligence aimed at addressing complex problems. In this evolving landscape, AI should be designed to continuously update and integrate newfound human insights, creating new strata of knowledge. This hybrid intelligence system necessitates human competence in AI interaction. Consequently, future curricula should encompass human-AI interaction and offer classes covering subjects such as prompt engineering to enhance students' information-retrieval skills and help them achieve more accurate results.
By integrating these strategies into our educational system, we can foster an environment in which students are not just passive learners but instead are actively engaged with AI as creative thinkers. This will encourage students to formulate their own ideas and hypotheses, thereby nurturing a sense of intellectual ownership and growth. By this means, education not only prepares students for tests but also empowers them to make substantive contributions to the community while in school.
3. Personal interests and curiosity are the driving forces of learning. Are we ready to fully step into personalized education?
We've all experienced the thrill of delving into a subject we find fascinating or discovering something new in a field we're passionate about. We've also endured those dreary hours spent on uninteresting tasks. Clearly, our brains do not function at the same level in these contrasting scenarios. When routine, repetitive tasks are automated through AI, the unique interests, talents, and characters of individuals will become increasingly valuable.
Neil Fleming, a New Zealand educator, introduced the VARK model of student learning in 1987. He noted four learning styles that students adopt to varying degrees: Visual, Aural, Reading, and Kinesthetic (VARK). Over time, three additional common learning styles have been identified: Logical, Social, and Solitary.Footnote7 The recent advent of AI image generation, augmented reality technologies, and human language recognition can provide personalized presentations of learning points based on an individual's interest and learning styles, allowing an immersive learning experience for all types of learners.
In the years ahead, personalized education will play a crucial role in maximizing students' potential and addressing diverse learning needs. With advancements in technology and data analysis, education can be tailored to the unique strengths, interests, and learning styles of each student. Tailored learning paths can allow students to progress at their own pace and delve deeper into their areas of passion. Adaptive learning platforms, powered by AI, can provide real-time feedback and assessments, enabling educators to identify areas of improvement and customize instruction accordingly. For example, Duolingo, an app for learning languages, uses AI to identify words and phrases a user might be struggling with; it then curates a special lesson focusing on these words. By embracing personalized education, we can unlock the full potential of every learner, nurturing a generation of individuals who are prepared to thrive in the complexities of the future. In doing so, however, we must move beyond academics to also instill a lifelong love of learning and help students cultivate ethical values, social responsibility, and global citizenship. This allows students to become more active participants in their own future and contributors to their community.
4. AI-assisted personalized learning will promote equality in education.
Students, regardless of their backgrounds, possess abundant creativity and originality within their individual passions. AI has the potential to uplift ingenious ideas and showcase brilliant minds that may have been overlooked in the past. Personalized education holds tremendous potential as a vehicle to address the educational disparities and inequalities disproportionately affecting underrepresented minorities. By tailoring instruction to the specific needs, backgrounds, and cultural contexts of students, personalized education can provide a more inclusive and equitable learning experience. It allows educators to recognize and appreciate the unique strengths and perspectives that underrepresented minority students bring to the table.
AI-assisted personalized education also offers an effective solution to help bridge the achievement gap. By providing targeted and precise support, resources, and interventions tailored to individual learning challenges, AI can significantly promote academic success by assessing learning patterns, strengths, and weaknesses in real time, offering personalized strategies and resources that promote successful learning experiences. This level of customization can prove invaluable in addressing educational disparities and promoting academic success among underrepresented students.
To ensure that underrepresented minorities benefit, accessibility to AI technologies and personalized education is of utmost important. Backing from the U.S. government, corporate entities, and the general public can help guarantee the expansion of one-to-one computing initiatives. In June 2023, the White House announced the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program—a $42.45 billion grant program "to connect everyone in America to reliable, affordable high-speed internet by the end of the decade."Footnote8 This will be an impactful move to further bridge the digital divide, fostering equal opportunities for educational success and opening doors to a brighter future for students from all backgrounds.
AI chatbots and other AI technologies possess the transformative power to revolutionize the learning process and reshape our world. Progress has always been about how societies use technology. The integration of the hybrid intelligence system into our society can light a fire within the hearts and minds of learners of all ages. Those who adapt to and embrace the remarkable capabilities of AI will hold the key to the door to the future.
- Arianna Johnson, "ChatGPT in Schools: Here's Where It's Banned—and How It Could Potentially Help Students," Forbes, January 31, 2023. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Gary Marcus, "AI Platforms like ChatGPT Are Easy to Use but Also Potentially Dangerous," Scientific American, December 19, 2022; Lyle Moran, "Lawyer Cites Fake Cases Generated by ChatGPT in Legal Brief," Legal Dive, May 30, 2023. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Will Douglas Heaven, "ChatGPT Is Going to Change Education, Not Destroy It," MIT Technology Review, April 6, 2023. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- "Exploring Teacher and Student Attitudes toward Chatgpt," Walton Family Foundation (website), May 4, 2023. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
- William J. Yin, "A Bacterial Enzyme May Correct 2-HG Accumulation in Human Cancers," Frontiers in Oncology 13, July 20, 2023. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
- Bill Gates, "The Age of AI Has Begun," GatesNotes, March 21, 2023. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
- Christine Persaud, "Learning Styles: The Ultimate Guide," Top Hat blog, February 4, 2019. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
- The White House, "Fact Sheet: Biden-Harris Administration Announces over $40 Billion to Connect Everyone in America to Affordable, Reliable, High-Speed Internet," June 26, 2023. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
William J. Yin, a talented and popular student at Oconee County High School, Watkinsville, Georgia, was known for his academic achievements, athletic prowess, musical talents, and his tireless support for his peers.
© 2024 William J. Yin