John Connor, Where Did You Go?

Well, I am wondering if the Terminator got to Sarah Connor before her son John could stop the development of artificial intelligence (AI) that would end the world. AI seems to be everywhere these days, and before the Winter Break, I demonstrated one AI application for Colorado Academy administrators. It isn’t the kind of AI in the Terminator film franchise that doomed planet Earth, but it is the kind of AI that might strike fear in the hearts of educators. 

I shared a program that can write nearly any kind of text in response to a prompt. For the purposes of welcoming you all back to school, I typed in the following prompt—as typically I would welcome families back with a similar type of message—just to see what would come back:

“Welcoming students back to school after the Winter Break with advice, 500 words.”

In less than 30 seconds, the program responded with this welcome-back message:

“Welcome back to school, students! It’s a new year and a new semester, and with that comes new opportunities and challenges. Here are a few pieces of advice to help you get the most out of your time back in the classroom:

  1. Set goals for the semester. Take some time to think about what you want to accomplish this semester. Do you want to improve your grades, participate more in class, or try something new? Whatever your goals may be, make sure they are specific and achievable.
  2. Get organized. The start of a new semester is the perfect time to get your schedule and materials in order. Consider using a planner or calendar to keep track of assignments, tests, and extracurricular activities. Make sure you have all the necessary supplies, like pencils, pens, and notebooks.
  3. Attend all of your classes. It can be tempting to skip a class or two, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed. However, missing class can make it difficult to catch up and can negatively impact your grades. Try to attend all of your classes, even if you’re not feeling your best.
  4. Participate in class. Engaging in class discussions and asking questions not only helps you learn more, but it can also show your teachers that you’re interested and invested in the material. Don’t be afraid to speak up and share your thoughts.
  5. Take care of yourself. Make sure to prioritize your physical and mental health. Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and make time for exercise and relaxation. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, don’t hesitate to reach out to a teacher, counselor, or trusted adult for support.
  6. Stay on top of assignments. It can be easy to fall behind on assignments, especially if you’re balancing school with other commitments. Try to stay organized and work on assignments as soon as they are assigned to avoid getting overwhelmed later on.
  7. Seek help when you need it. Whether you’re struggling with a particular subject or just need someone to talk to, don’t be afraid to seek help. Your teachers, school counselors, and other school staff are there to support you and want you to succeed.
  8. Find a balance. It’s important to focus on your academics, but don’t forget to make time for other activities and interests. Whether it’s participating in a club or sport, spending time with friends and family, or just taking a break to relax, finding a balance can help you stay motivated and engaged in your studies.
  9. Stay positive. School can be challenging at times, but try to stay positive and keep things in perspective. Remember that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s okay to make mistakes. Keep an open mind and stay focused on your goals, and you’ll be sure to have a successful semester.

I hope these tips are helpful as you start the new semester. Remember to take things one day at a time, and don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. Best of luck to you all!”

A little scary, isn’t it? I have written messages like this before, giving advice in a series of bullet points—often, very similar advice. Admittedly, we are not on a semester system, and it is a bit repetitive, but these things would be easy to fix.

As I played with this program with other administrators, I entered prompts like “Write a college application to The College of Wooster for a history student and explain why you want to go there.” The program responded with a half-generic essay, but did include mentions of specific programs at that college. Another prompt was “Write a college letter of recommendation for a strong math student.” The resulting text lacked specifics of the student’s work, but did follow a traditional format and contained the kinds of observations and positive remarks one would find in a typical recommendation letter. 

I also asked specific questions I might ask my students to answer in essays, like “What happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 and what was its significance?” and “What mistakes did Kennedy make in Vietnam?” Like the artificial back-to-school message above, the results weren’t prose that would blow you away. The essays didn’t offer strong historical judgment; they lacked specific quotes from historical actors. In fact, they read a lot like a Wikipedia entry. But, for most history courses in a high school or college setting, the essay could be read by a teacher who might have no clue that a student used AI to help with their work. The program allows users to ask for a response at a given grade level. Users can get a look at one draft in a matter of seconds and then ask the program to come up with another. And, this program can evade anti-plagiarism software.

The ethics here are very important for us to think about as a society. And this technology has huge implications for schools. It will force teachers to rethink take-home essays on general topics. I can see assigning essays that are based on a very close reading of specific texts; perhaps teachers could ask highly specific questions. That might work for a time, but these programs will only get stronger and more powerful. I asked the program a question I thought it couldn’t answer: “On the show The Office, why does Dwight only wear yellow shirts?” It actually came up with a very specific response that was surprising and funny. It might force more assessments to be done in class. But, this technology is here now, and educators are going to need to think about how we manage it.

Remember, it doesn’t just work in history class–AI can generate code, spreadsheets, and even art. I am not a whiz at spreadsheets, but I just typed in the simple prompt “Create a five-column spreadsheet for grades,” and instantly got this:

| Student Name | Assignment 1 | Assignment 2 | Assignment 3 | Final Grade |


| John Smith | 90 | 85 | 80 | 86 |

| Jane Doe | 95 | 88 | 92

I typed in this prompt in an AI art program: “Georgia O’Keeffe oil painting of a cactus,” and immediately got these four images:

The most important thing we can teach our students is integrity. AI might make things easier to do, and they might prompt some level of creativity or work to build upon. But, it is not going to make human beings any smarter. And, until we are living on some type of universal wage (which I hope never happens, as work can give us meaning), there are still many things we need to know how to do ourselves. The only way we can learn these important skills is to put in the work: writing our own essays, painting our own art, creating our own code, etc. But, as students think about future work and employment, it will be important to think about what types of employment won’t be replaced by machines. Because it doesn’t feel like John Connor stopped Skynet….

For further reading, you may want to check out these articles—many address the ways AI is going to affect education:

And stay tuned: while it may sound as if I agree with skeptics that AI is only something to fear, in a future blog post I’ll be writing about the ways educators might harness the power of AI to do things in the classroom that are unimaginable today.