How to use ChatGPT in the history classroom 

It’s not a stretch to say that AI chatbots have taken the internet by storm. Since the public launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022, social and legacy media have been ablaze with predictions about how AI promises to reshape—and perhaps even ruin—education, work, and society. This technology comes with a sense of promise, but also peril. Tech pioneer Bill Gates described AI as the “most important tech advance in decades.” Other luminaries have called for a pause in AI research until guiderails can be developed to rein in AI.

Between ChatGPT and its competitors, like Google’s forthcoming Bard or Microsoft’s soon-to-be-AI-infused Office, AI seems here to stay. Our students now live and learn in an environment where they can ask AI chatbots to write computer code, interpret novels, and even generate essays or responses to exam questions. 

AI’s meteoric rise has sparked obvious academic integrity pitfalls. It’s not surprising that across the United States, school districts, university departments, and individual faculty have rushed to formulate AI policies. The data is elusive, but from my vantage, it seems that many educators seem inclined to outright ban AI.  

I don’t support that position. Admittedly, at first encounter with ChatGPT, I was tempted to ban it. But after spending time experimenting with the program and chatting with my students, who expressed curiosity about the program’s potential and limitations, I spotted a learning opportunity.

ChatGPT and similar chatbots can be used in the history classroom to teach the historians’ skill set—especially, writing, evidence-based argumentation, information analysis, and fact-checking. ChatGPT also offers historians and our students an opportunity to critically reflect on historical memory as seen on the internet.

What follows is an exercise I midterm exercise I developed for a class I teach called “Frederick Douglass’s America.” The class follows Frederick Douglass through the nineteenth-century U.S., exploring antebellum slavery and abolition, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age. At this point, about halfway through the semester, my students have read substantial works about Douglass by historians and have delved into Douglass’s autobiographies, speeches, newspapers, and letters. With this content expertise, my students were in the right place to reflect critically on a ChatGPT-generated biography of Frederick Douglass. 

The lesson plan—available here for anyone to use and adapt—was a success. My students worked in small groups to analyze the short AI biography of Douglass, with each group focused on a specific paragraph or theme. They tested the limits of ChatGPT by spotting numerous factual errors and information that was missing crucial context. Next, students worked to resolve these issues by editing the essay, correcting factual errors and inaccuracies. In the process, they had an opportunity to demonstrate their own knowledge about Douglass. This exercise, which took about 30 minutes start to finish, allowed my students a chance to reflect on what they have learned this semester, while also sharpening the historians’ toolkit in preparation for upcoming research papers. 

An added bonus of this exercise was how ChatGPT set up my students to enter into the final unit in our course, a segment on the “memory” of Frederick Douglass in modern American society. This opportunity stems from the current design of ChatGPT, which basically Hoovers up online information and recycles that content in an essay format without identifying factual errors or analyzing for historical fallacies and biases. Students thus had the opportunity to identify which facets of Douglass’s life have entered into the public’s consciousness and evaluate the aspects of the Douglass that have often been overlooked or misunderstood.

This exercise can be readily adopted, adapted, and deployed in a variety of undergraduate history courses, especially upper levels on the nineteenth-century U.S. The lesson plan could also potentially be utilized in survey courses as a take-home assignment. 

After all, ChatGPT is merely the leading edge of the AI revolution. If history educators simply bury our heads in the sand and ban AI from the classroom, crucial learning opportunities are lost. So why not embrace it? 

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