Some schools in the U.S. are considering whether to ban chatbots, which use artificial intelligence, or AI. However, some math and computer science teachers think chatbots, which “learn” about subjects from the internet, are just another tool.
Jack Price has taught math using Wolfram Alpha. It is a website that solves algebraic problems online. It has long threatened to make algebra homework a thing of the past.
Teachers learned to work around and with it, said Price. He is an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Puget Sound in the western state of Washington. Now, students have a new online service that provides homework help using AI—ChatGPT—that teachers must deal with.
Price does not consider ChatGPT to be a threat, and he is not alone. Some math professors believe AI, when used correctly, can help strengthen math learning. It is arriving at a time when math scores are at historic lows and educators are questioning if math should be taught differently.
AI can serve as a tutor, giving a student who is struggling with a problem immediate feedback. It can help a teacher plan math lessons or write math problems for different levels of teaching. It can show new computer programmers sample code, permitting them to avoid learning how to write basic code.
“Math has always been evolving as technology evolves,” said Price. He said that a hundred years ago, people could not solve problems using calculators.
Price makes sure students have the ability to solve problems on their own. Then, he discusses the limitations of the technologies they might want to use when they get home.
“Computers are really good at doing tedious things,” Price said. “We don’t have to do all the tedious stuff…And then we can interpret the answer and think about what it tells us about the decisions we need to make.”
Min Sun is a University of Washington education professor. She thinks students should use chatbots like personal tutors. If students do not understand a math operation, they can ask ChatGPT to explain it and give examples.
She wants teachers to use ChatGPT as their own assistant: to plan math lessons, give students feedback and communicate with parents.
Teachers can also ask ChatGPT to recommend different levels of math problems for students with different skill levels, she said. This is particularly helpful for teachers who are new to the job or have students with different needs, Sun said.
A year ago, if you asked Daniel Zingaro how he tests his introductory computer science students, he would say: “We ask them to write code.”
But, if you ask him today, Zingaro said his answer would be more complex. He teaches at the University of Toronto in Canada.
Zingaro wrote the book Learn AI-Assisted Python Programming with GitHub Copilot and ChatGPT with Leo Porter, a computer science professor at University of California San Diego. They believe AI will permit introductory computer science classes to teach larger ideas.
A lot of beginner students have problems writing simple code, Porter and Zingaro said. They never move on to higher-level questions. Many still cannot write simple code after they complete the class.
Chatbots do not make those mistakes, and it permits computer science professors to spend more time teaching higher-level abilities.
The professors now ask their students to take a big problem and break it down to smaller questions the code needs to do. They also ask students to test and debug code once it is written.
Porter said of students: “We want them to write software that is meaningful to them.”
Magdalena Balazinska is director of the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. She welcomes AI.
“With the support of AI, human software engineers get to focus on the most interesting part of computer science: answering big software design questions,” Balazinska said.
Not all professors in the field think AI should be used. But Zingaro and Porter said that reading a lot of code created by artificial intelligence does not feel like cheating. Rather, it is a way for students to learn.
“I think a lot of programmers read a lot of code, just like how I believe the best writers read a lot of writing,” Zingaro said. “I think that is a very powerful way to learn.”
I’m Dan Novak. And I'm Jill Robbins.