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By 
Juan Rojas
 on February 13, 2024

A Christian Educator’s Perspective on AI in the Classroom

AI tools like ChatGPT have limitations and challenges, but Christian STEM educator Juan Rojas believes we can responsibly use them in the classroom and beyond.

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An adorable toy robot standing in front of a blackboard as if teaching a class

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Have you ever had a sudden revelation? An epiphany? A Damascus road moment? What triggered the unexpected realization? Saul’s encounter with Jesus upended his whole world in ways he could not have imagined. In Acts 9:18 it says that “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.” I have had my share of Damascus moments. Not least my conversion at a young age, where for the first time in my life I realized Jesus had not been my Lord and I did not walk in his footsteps. A moment that humbled me but enabled me to be transformed.

I recently had a similar opening of my eyes when it comes to encountering new AI technologies. I do not mean to come across as sacrilegious, comparing encounters with the Divine like Paul’s Damascus road experience and my own conversion story to interacting with human-engineered technology. But as an engineer with a background in computer science and robotics, I can’t help but be in awe of the technological advancements I am witnessing develop. I am humbled that God has given us such capacity for innovation. And I am filled with curiosity about how these new technologies will transform and shape us.

As an educator, I have been especially interested in how to better leverage new technologies to enhance my student’s learning. I believe that technology can in fact be leveraged in ways that empower, sharpen thinking, and help students become more reflective learners. As a Christian, I want to make sure I find responsible ways to use technology in my classroom and teach my students about ethical uses of it. Scripture calls us to work hard, be responsible, and use wisdom. I believe that if we let these principles guide our use of technology in the classroom and elsewhere, we can find a healthy balance that promotes flourishing.

Scripture calls us to work hard, be responsible, and use wisdom. I believe that if we let these principles guide our use of technology in the classroom and elsewhere, we can find a healthy balance that promotes flourishing.

The Challenges of AI Technology

By this time most of us have heard about or used Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT or Google’s Bard—along with a flurry of customized and questionable versions enabled by open source models. Perhaps you love these systems, or perhaps you hate them. You might even feel confused about them. OpenAI describes these as the world’s first highly capable and advanced AI systems.

OpenAI highlights ChatGPT’s creativity, reasoning, and safety. The AI is described as a tool and creative medium that can amplify your work. Its creative ability is indeed very advanced. It can generate up to 25,000 words in a single output; that’s the length of a novella! Its largest potential is thought to be in education where it can serve as a helpful assistant or tutor with unlimited time and patience across any subject.

However, the rise of technologies like ChatGPT has alarmed educational institutions everywhere. Schools and universities alike fear that students will use ChatGPT to write essays and solve math problems. In other words, plagiarism is at the forefront of the discussion. Many companies have even rushed to create LLM plagiarism detection tools that claim to identify whether text was created using an LLM.

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Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

…The rise of technologies like ChatGPT has alarmed educational institutions everywhere. Schools and universities alike fear that students will use ChatGPT to write essays and solve math problems. In other words, plagiarism is at the forefront of the discussion.

Juan Rojas

Beyond just the ethics of plagiarism, using LLMs like ChatGPT to provide answers to problems we should solve or work we should do ourselves ultimately is a disservice. Getting an easy answer may seem harmless, yet I believe it is in this very dynamic that the greatest challenges emerge for both users and developers. When the user stops wrestling with the problems at hand, learning objectives are diminished. This diminished thinking ultimately weakens the user’s mind. A potentially empowering assistant becomes an abettor and encourages laziness. In using AI systems to provide answers for us we also subject ourselves to them. We place our minds under its reign. Over time, we absorb and adopt views given to us rather than learn how to develop our own.

It is important to consider where the answers from LLMs like ChaptGPT come from as well. Large companies like OpenAI, Google, and Microsoft train their systems on a curated portion of almost all available textual, visual, programmatic, and scientific knowledge on the internet. While their content is filtered for factual accuracy, privacy, and child safety, not all content is. For LLMs created or trained with much lower supervision major bias can be expected. It is concerning to consider how the filters and biases built into LLMs like ChatGPT may affect us subconsciously the more we or our students look for easy answers rather than cultivate our own problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

The Blessings of AI Technology

While technologies like ChatGPT can present us with many ethical challenges, I do believe that these systems can be used for good. I believe that they can be leveraged in ways that empower us and sharpen our thinking. And, importantly for me as an educator, I believe that they have the potential to help students become more reflective in their own learning process. And perhaps even learn better.

As a Christian, I can’t help but look to Scripture to guide my life and work. What I find is that the Bible is full of scriptures that encourage us to work hard, be responsible, and grow in wisdom. Two that stand out to me are 1 Corinthians 4:2 “…it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.” and Proverbs 28:19 “A hard worker has plenty of food, but a person who chases fantasies ends up in poverty.”

Scriptures like these, beckon me to consider questions like: How can I leverage these systems in a way that advances learning and growth for myself and my students? How can I responsibly use LLMs like ChatGPT? How can I teach my students to be responsible users and future developers of such systems? Especially in a world where one of the biggest fears of the general population when it comes to AI systems is that it will replace them and their work. The already marginalized stand to be impacted the most.

Thankfully, there are positive examples of using AI in the classroom, from Khan Academy with their new Khan Amigo system to researchers like Ken Arnold at Calvin University. We can deploy LLMs to help us think and write better by asking them questions about our work instead of asking them to do our work. If we are writing, we can ask the LLM to examine our text to help us have thoughtful reflections and support revision. We may even want to ask the LLM to analyze the structure of our document or whether the introduction or background of our article is appropriate given our audience. We can ask the system to study the tone and diction in our work to identify poor usage.

While technologies like ChatGPT can present us with many ethical challenges, I do believe that these systems…can be leveraged in ways that empower us and sharpen our thinking…[and] that they have the potential to help students become more reflective in their own learning process. And perhaps even learn better.

Another concrete example might be to ask a LLM the following question: “As a reader, ask the writer 2 or 3 questions about definitions, logical connections, or some missing background information.” What might ensue are thought-provoking questions that you have not yet considered in your writing, recommendations for missing connections that exist in your text that you have not yet recognized, or definitions that are not well developed in your text.

Similarly, Khan Amigo gives us examples of how this is possible in the sciences. Consider a situation where you get stuck with a math or physics problem. In prompting the system for help, the LLM acts as a real tutor would and asks you to think about the step where you got stuck instead of giving you the answer. It might ask you questions to help you think about your own understanding before it asks prompting questions to steer you to think about a particular relationship that you have yet to consider.

When we view LLMs in this light, our impressions of these systems change considerably. We can now conceive a system that assists or tutors us and allows for deeper reflection. By exacting responsible use from the LLM, the system amplifies learning. Could we not extend this notion to workers as well? Could we not customize and train users to leverage these systems to extend human reach rather than replace it? These are the types of questions I want my students to be mindful of in their studies and ultimately in their future work.

Empowering users, especially members who are marginalized, might enable them to flourish instead of suffer. Developers must grow to be more responsible actors and more intentional in their system designs to avoid abetting irresponsible use of their systems. As a Christian educator, I am hopeful about a future where our students will humbly lead with curiosity and compassion in this emerging field.

As a Christian educator, I am hopeful about a future where our students will humbly lead with curiosity and compassion in this emerging field.

About the author

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Juan Rojas

Dr. Juan Rojas studied Electrical and Computer Engineering (EECE) at Vanderbilt University for his B.S. ‘02, M.S. ‘04, and Ph.D. ’09. He also played full-back for the Vanderbilt Commodores ‘99-02. After completing his Ph.D., he pursued a post-doctoral fellowship at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Tsukuba, Japan. Dr. Rojas has served at several institutions including Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou China, Guandong University of Technology, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Most recently he is an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Lipscomb University. Dr. Rojas has published more than 60 peer-reviewed publications in leading Journals. He also serves as an Associate Editor of numerous journals including the Advanced Robotics journal, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters (RAL), IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), the IEEE International Conference on Robots and Systems (IROS), the IEEE-RAS Conference on Humanoid Robots (Humanoids), the IEEE Conference on Robotics and Biomimetics (ROBIO), and the IEEE International Conference on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN). Dr. Rojas also serves in the IEEE Medal for Environmental and Safety Technologies Committee and previously served as a board member of the Robotics and Automation Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (RAS-SIGHT).