The Robot Tutor: Rochester Public Schools aims to refocus ChatGPT as a tool rather than as a villain

Welcome to the future. New web-based research tool can be used as a resource or, some fear, a source of cheating.

A GIF shows ChatGPT responding to a question.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — It’s now the era where teachers have to wonder if students asked a robot to do their homework rather than another human.

Welcome to the future.

Late last year, the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT crashed onto the scene with all the grace and subtlety of a bull in a china shop. And although Rochester teachers have been scrambling to adapt, they realize it can be used as a tool when done correctly.

“For teachers, there’s so many powerful ways they can use it,” said Heather Willman, principal on special assignment with secondary curriculum and instruction. “There are dangers, but I feel like on the balance, it’s positive.”

What it does

The program quickly writes content on any subject based on simple user prompts that don’t have to be any longer than a Google search query. But unlike Google, which simply provides a list of websites where the user can access information, ChatGPT dishes it up on a silver platter.


It was initially released in November 2022. As the new year came around, it started becoming the subject of headlines and conversations across the board.

Willow Creek Middle School Teacher Kristi Howe said the program is causing teachers to re-evaluate how they oversee assignments.

“It’s going to force teachers to be more purposeful in what they’re assigning, and following the process, not just the end product,” said Howe, who has spoken about the program with her students in class. “It kind of takes the wind out of the kids’ sail when you introduce it to them because now they don’t think they’re circumventing you.”

Despite all the hype about it, the program has its challenges. Howe said one is the simple fact that ChatGPT may use wording that her middle school students wouldn’t — a red flag that a student may have tried to cut corners with the program.

Rochester Public Schools has started to confront the possibilities and challenges posed by ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence program that quickly provides written content based on user prompts. A ChatGPT response is pictured Wednesday, March 29, 2023.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

The software is good at providing facts, but isn’t the greatest at analysis, or at least not in the early iterations of the program.

Even now, there's a wealth of information about it. Articles. Podcasts. Everyone is trying to figure out the best way to mold it into the school environment, or shield students against it all together.

Embracing technology

Willman said it could be compared to the use of calculator in math class, which has become a widely acceptable practice.

Rather than telling students they can’t use it at all, RPS is trying to incorporate it as an asset instead. Not long after it became available, the district started organizing professional development sessions about ChatGPT, helping teachers adjust to the curveball.


So how can the program be used constructively anyway?

Howe said it can allow students to see how to structure their writing, or to generate ideas. Stefanie Whitney, implementation associate for secondary humanities, compared it to Wikipedia, describing it as a jumping off point, but not something that should be used in and of itself.

When learning about the program, Whitney plugged a prompt into the program, asking how communities are responding to climate change. She said it provided information about three communities that she was able to research further.

Whitney also said teachers can ask the program to present information at a certain grade level, which helps to recast lessons if students are struggling with the material.

“It creates a text accessibility that is just immediate,” Whitney said. “So for students who might be struggling with some of that basic information, it creates an opportunity for it to be concise, easy to understand, and now we can move to the application of it.”

It’s not just a tool for students. Multiple people in the district said it is able to benefit teachers, such as in the creation of lesson plans.

Even though it's the latest and flashiest toy around, Howe put the program in more of a historical context.

“I wonder if teachers had the same level of panic when Google came out,” Howe said. “I’m not a person who believes in shutting down a tool, because we’re not going to win. If we teach them how to use these resources, it’s only going to enhance what we do.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or
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