The AI chat app being trialled in NSW schools which makes students work for the answers

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When year 8 student Mikaela Rumi Badger asks ChatGPT how to solve a question for a fractions exam, it gives her the answer.

But when the Ponds high school student asks New South Wales’ purpose-built AI app NSWEduChat for help, it asks her additional questions.

“To better assist you, can you let me know what you need help with?” it asks, coaxing her with clues when she attempts calculations.

“Not quite,” it tells her. “To convert an improper fraction, you need to multiply the whole number by the denominator and then add the numerator. Can you do that?”

The app, which describes itself as a “virtual tutor”, is being hailed as the possible future of artificial intelligence in NSW schools.

On Monday, 16 public schools across the state gained access to the app for the next two terms in a trial that will determine its viability to go sector-wide.

NSWEduChat, designed by the state’s Department of Education, is modelled on ChatGPT but built specifically for the state’s curriculum. Students have access to one interface, while teachers have their own version of the tool which they can use to direct classroom content.

Unlike ChatGPT, the app has been designed to only respond to questions that relate to schooling and education, via content-filtering and topic restriction.

It does not reveal full answers or write essays, instead aiming to encourage critical thinking via guided questions that prompt the student to respond – much like a teacher.

For Mikaela, asking questions in classroom settings can be intimidating.

She says the app also helps reduce the “stigma” of AI chatbots, which were initially banned in public school settings after ChatGPT launched in 2022. Since then, assessments have been altered at the school to reduce the risk of plagiarism.

“If you say write me a whole essay, EduChat will say I can’t do that – but I’ll help you write an essay,” Mikaela says.

“For kids that need the extra push it’s going to be great. Sometimes parents don’t know how to help you and it can be frustrating when you have homework and you need support.”

Year 12 school captain Leeya Alves has had early access to the technology for the past two weeks and hopes it will prevent her peers from turning to ChatGPT.

“When we’re out of the classroom, as much as there’s blockers, we still have access to ChatGPT and resources that aren’t pushing us to be the students we could be,” she says.

“In our year, a lot of us are taking that short corner. But in an exam, you’ll just be hoping for the best and that the pen can write for you.

“We see kids heavily dependent on ChatGPT who sit there and struggle.”

Leeya has been using NSWEduChat for her HSC dance subject to gain inspiration for her performance concepts. If you don’t get the answer you hoped for, there are input tabs to “rephrase”, “make it simpler”, “expand” or “summarise”.

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It translates, too – she’s had whole conversations with her inbuilt tutor in Spanish.

“You can’t take your teachers home,” she says. “Teachers need their personal lives, too. This is something we can take through our entire schooling.”

The executive director of the NSW Department of Education, Paul Wood, says the app doesn’t have the same privacy concerns as other technologies, including ChatGPT, as the data is controlled by, and only visible to, its internal servers.

He says departmental control also means responses generated are aligned with the state’s curriculum – the algorithm is taught to believe it is a NSW teacher.

If students ask NSWEduChat to help them cheat, or for advice unrelated to school, it will tell them “I can only assist you with educational purposes”.

But it is a learning curve, with the app being continually tested for bugs as students test it.

Ponds year 12 school captain Leeya Alves: ‘This is something we can take through our entire schooling.’ Photograph: James Gourley

Ponds high school deputy principal James Laird hopes the app has the potential to reduce the significant administrative burden of teachers.

He says staff have already used it to design complex course content, including lesson plans and worksheets.

“Outside the classroom, it has the potential to complete administrative tasks … assist with marking,” he says. “Inside the classroom, we can use it to engage critical thinking.

“The way it works is the way teachers would work – putting things back on the students.”

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