Is AI the New Homework Machine? Understanding AI and Its Impact on Higher Education

Published by: Lindsey Downs | 1/5/2023

Tags: Academic Integrity , Artificial Intelligence , Higher Education Trends

By now you’ve likely seen the hubbub over ChatGPT, OpenAI’s new chat bot trained on their large language model AI GPT 3.5. Some of the more provocative announcements about the impact of artificial intelligence include:

  • This is the end of homework as we know it ,
  • Students are already using this to cheat and we’ll never know ,
  • AI can produce writing as good as a college student ,

The focus of much of this discussion about AI has been on academic integrity, specifically academic dishonesty. But bigger issues—digital literacy, pedagogical practices, equity—are also at play.

how does the homework machine work

In 2023, WCET will look at Artificial Intelligence (AI) and provide support and resources to help you break through the rhetoric and understand both the promises and perils of AI in higher education.

To begin, this introductory blog post will focus on an overview of large language model AIs and their potential impact on higher education.

In coming months, we will do a number of deeper dives on AI and higher education including a Frontiers Podcast episode, a February brief that explores selected AI tools, several blog posts on AI’s impact on pedagogical practices, what a new digital literacy in the age of AI might look like, and the equity implications of large language model AI, as well as a summer white paper that will do a deeper dive on the pedagogical and policy implications of AI.

A Quick Primer and Glossary on Large Language Model Artificial Intelligence

Before we delve into the impact of AI on higher education, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider artificial intelligence and its most recent manifestations.


how does the homework machine work

Artificial Intelligence (AI): Stanford University’s Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence group defines artificial intelligence as “a term coined by emeritus Stanford Professor John McCarthy in 1955, was defined by him as ‘the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.’ Much research has humans program machines to behave in a clever way, like playing chess, but, today, we emphasize machines that can learn, at least somewhat like human beings do.”

Machine learning: Machine learning was defined by AI pioneer Arthur Samuel in the 1950s as “the field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without explicitly being programmed.” Often times this now happens via neural networks.

Neural networks and deep learning: Neural networks are, simply put, computer networks that are built in such a way as to mimic the human brain with each node leading to other nodes, much as the brain is a complex collection of networked neurons. Neural networks lead to deep learning which allows the computer to learn from large amounts of data in a way that “creates an adaptive system that computers use to learn from their mistakes and improve continuously.”

Large language model (LLM): A language model trained on an enormous amount of text so that it is capable of predicting a given sequence of words. This capability allows the model to “understand” inquiries and replicate human language in a largely coherent way.

Much of the recent discussion is around large language model AI. This type of AI relies on a neural net to look for and find patterns in a massive amount of data. The larger the neural network, i.e., the number of nodes, the larger the data input can be, and, in theory, the more capability the AI has to interact with humans. Much large language model AI, such as OpenAI’s (a research and development company) ChatGPT, relies on large neural networks which allow the AI to continuously learn from its interactions with humans and improve its responses.

The Buzziest LLM AI Right Now: OpenAI’s ChatGPT and GPT 3.5

Last month OpenAI released ChatGPT , a chat interface for its GPT 3.5 large language model AI . Using the chat interface, users can make a seemingly endless array of queries of GPT 3.5 that result in often stunning responses. For example, when provided with a prompt to explain how the ChatGPT works, the program responded:

how does the homework machine work

ChatGPT is a large language model that is trained to generate human-like text. It does this by being fed vast amounts of text data, which it uses to learn the patterns and structures of language. To generate text, ChatGPT uses a type of artificial intelligence called a transformer, which allows it to process language more efficiently and effectively. It also utilizes a technique called self-attention, which enables it to consider the relationships between words in a sentence and the context in which they are used. When given a prompt, ChatGPT uses all of this information to generate a response that is coherent and resembles natural language.

And when asked to write a poem in the style of iambic pentameter on the superiority of cats, the program responded:

In iambic pentameter, the most common type of meter in English poetry, each line contains ten syllables and has a regular pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The pattern is typically written as “da-DUM” and can be thought of as the beat of the poem. Here is a short poem about the superiority of cats written in iambic pentameter:

And, finally, when asked to write a college application essay on one’s experiences of working in a soup kitchen which includes reflecting on what you learned and including an interaction with a small child, ChatGPT, in a matter of seconds, responded with a coherent, personalized, five paragraph essay. I fully believe that the fact that the essay was written by AI and not a live person would be undetectable for many college admissions committees.

Why, as a society, should we care about the release of ChatGPT? Very simply put, the release of ChatGPT and the development of other large language model AIs is a seminal moment in human history. The moment is akin to probably the single most important historical technological development—the creation of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the early 15 th century. Just as the printing press changed our relationship with information by making it available to a wider audience, large language model AI is changing our relationship with information by blurring the lines between human and machine. It forces us to reconsider what is distinctly human about intelligence if a machine can generate human language complete with analysis.

What Does All of This Mean for Higher Education?

It is clear that the development of large language model AI, and its growing availability to a more general audience, could significantly change higher education. It will call into question the ways in which we have used writing as, as Daniel Herman puts it, “a benchmark for aptitude and intelligence.” Generative LLM will force us to think about what we assess and how we assess it, shifting a reliance on writing to more creative assessments that require students to demonstrate application of knowledge rather than simply the ability to produce information.

how does the homework machine work

Higher education is being called upon to rethink what we assess and why we assess it. We are being called upon to rethink the relationship between information, knowledge, and wisdom. When an AI can create passable prose with accurate information (something that ChatGPT and other LLM Ais still cannot yet do consistently), is it enough to ask our students to “prove” that they know the information? Or does our assessment shift to asking students to apply information, demonstrating knowledge of the subject at hand?

Higher education must rethink digital literacy and how we prepare our students for this new world of large language model AI. As we move closer to a world of hybrid work where more and more jobs involve the use of generative AI for everything from discovering new drug molecules to developing ad copy, we will need to help our students understand how to partner with AI. How do they craft a request? How do they evaluate the results of the AI? How can they leverage AI to more deeply understand the world around them? This is a new digital literacy and it goes beyond the use of statistical software application or how to craft a Google search request.

What You Can Do Right Now

In September of last year, before the release of ChatGPT, Jeff Schatten wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education , “It won’t be long before GPT-3, and the inevitable copycats, infiltrate the university. The technology is just too good and too cheap not to make its way into the hands of students who would prefer not to spend an evening perfecting the essay I routinely assign on the leadership style of Elon Musk.”

That time, that technology—it’s here, and higher education must decide how to respond.

In coming months we’ll do a much deeper dive on how you can respond to large language model AI but, in the interim, we would urge you to take the steps that John Warner suggests in his recent Inside Higher Ed blog, “Freaking Out About ChatGPT—Part I.”

We also need to begin thinking about how we define academic integrity in this new age of ChatGPT and other large language model AIs. This should lead to deeper conversations with our students about academic integrity.

As Melinda Zook, a Purdue history professor puts it , “The fact is the professoriate cannot teach the way we used to. Today’s students have to take ownership over every step of the learning experience. No more traditional five paragraph essays, no more ‘read the book and write about it.” We must radically rethink our pedagogical practices for the 21 st century.

In Conclusion: Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine

In 1958, Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin published Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, a children’s book about three junior high schoolers who decide to use a computer prototype to do their homework for them. When their teacher discovers their ruse and confronts Danny, he passionately defends their decision to program the computer with all of the information in their textbooks and use it to produce their homework exclaiming,

“It’s just another tool. Lots of kids do their homework on typewriters. In high school and college they teach kids to do some of their homework on slide rules. And scientists use all kinds of computers as tools for their work. So why pick on us? We’re just…just going along with the times.”

Junior high school hijinks ensue, including the sabotage of the computer by a jealous classmate and Danny heroically discovering and fixing it just as a representative from the federal government is about to leave in disgust. And, in the end, Danny and his friends recognize that in programming the computer to do their homework they have, in reality, been learning and doing their homework leading Danny to resolve not to use the computer to do their homework anymore. However, he does close the story by wondering about what a teaching machine would look like.

Reading Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine in light of ChatGPT was eerie. The story (written when Dwight Eisenhower was President) reflects current discussions about the ethics of students leveraging the latest AI innovations, especially ChatGPT and GPT 3.5.

In the coming months, we’ll explore these larger issues around AI and higher education . Meanwhile, we would love to hear your thoughts on ChatGPT and other AI tools and their impact on higher education. You can send any thoughts or questions to Van Davis at [email protected] .

Van Davis

Chief Strategy Officer, WCET, Service Design and Strategy Officer, Every Learner Everywhere

[email protected]


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Van joined WCET in 2021 as chief strategy officer where he is responsible for all aspects of WCET’s strategic planning; diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; and assisting the team with policy and research efforts. Van also serves as service design and strategy officer with Every Learner Everywhere where he leads the development and delivery of the organization’s Service Design and Delivery work.

Van is a valuable asset to the team, having over 25 years of experience in higher education as a faculty member, academic administrator, state policy maker, and edtech leader. Van holds a PhD in 20 th century US history with an emphasis in civil rights from Vanderbilt University, and his commitment to education is evidenced in both his professional and personal successes. Additionally, Van led the creation of the Texas adult degree complete project and the development of the first competency-based bachelor’s degrees at Texas public institutions of higher education during his time on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Van lives outside of Austin, Texas, with his beloved wife Lisa and two cats and, when not working, spends time collecting Lego models and dreaming of the day he can complete his western US camping trip. Van’s favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird , and his favorite movie is Dr. Strangelove.

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The Homework Machine #1

The homework machine.

The unlikely foursome made up of a geek, a class clown, a teacher's pet, and a slacker -- Brenton, Sam "Snick,", Judy and Kelsey, respectively, -- are bound together by one very big secret: the homework machine. Because the machine, code named Belch, is doing their homework for them, they start spending a lot of time together, attracting a lot of attention. And attention is exactly what you don't want when you are keeping a secret.

Before long, members of the D Squad, as they are called at school are getting strange Instant Messages from a shady guy named Milner; their teacher, Miss Rasmussen, is calling private meetings with each of them and giving them pop tests that they are failing; and someone has leaked the possibility of a homework machine to the school newspaper. Just when the D Squad thinks things can't get any more out of control, Belch becomes much more powerful than they ever imagined. Soon the kids are in a race against their own creation, and the loser could end up in jail...or worse!

160 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2006

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The Cult of Homework

America’s devotion to the practice stems in part from the fact that it’s what today’s parents and teachers grew up with themselves.

how does the homework machine work

America has long had a fickle relationship with homework. A century or so ago, progressive reformers argued that it made kids unduly stressed , which later led in some cases to district-level bans on it for all grades under seventh. This anti-homework sentiment faded, though, amid mid-century fears that the U.S. was falling behind the Soviet Union (which led to more homework), only to resurface in the 1960s and ’70s, when a more open culture came to see homework as stifling play and creativity (which led to less). But this didn’t last either: In the ’80s, government researchers blamed America’s schools for its economic troubles and recommended ramping homework up once more.

The 21st century has so far been a homework-heavy era, with American teenagers now averaging about twice as much time spent on homework each day as their predecessors did in the 1990s . Even little kids are asked to bring school home with them. A 2015 study , for instance, found that kindergarteners, who researchers tend to agree shouldn’t have any take-home work, were spending about 25 minutes a night on it.

But not without pushback. As many children, not to mention their parents and teachers, are drained by their daily workload, some schools and districts are rethinking how homework should work—and some teachers are doing away with it entirely. They’re reviewing the research on homework (which, it should be noted, is contested) and concluding that it’s time to revisit the subject.

Read: My daughter’s homework is killing me

Hillsborough, California, an affluent suburb of San Francisco, is one district that has changed its ways. The district, which includes three elementary schools and a middle school, worked with teachers and convened panels of parents in order to come up with a homework policy that would allow students more unscheduled time to spend with their families or to play. In August 2017, it rolled out an updated policy, which emphasized that homework should be “meaningful” and banned due dates that fell on the day after a weekend or a break.

“The first year was a bit bumpy,” says Louann Carlomagno, the district’s superintendent. She says the adjustment was at times hard for the teachers, some of whom had been doing their job in a similar fashion for a quarter of a century. Parents’ expectations were also an issue. Carlomagno says they took some time to “realize that it was okay not to have an hour of homework for a second grader—that was new.”

Most of the way through year two, though, the policy appears to be working more smoothly. “The students do seem to be less stressed based on conversations I’ve had with parents,” Carlomagno says. It also helps that the students performed just as well on the state standardized test last year as they have in the past.

Earlier this year, the district of Somerville, Massachusetts, also rewrote its homework policy, reducing the amount of homework its elementary and middle schoolers may receive. In grades six through eight, for example, homework is capped at an hour a night and can only be assigned two to three nights a week.

Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell whose daughter attends school in Somerville, is generally pleased with the new policy. But, he says, it’s part of a bigger, worrisome pattern. “The origin for this was general parental dissatisfaction, which not surprisingly was coming from a particular demographic,” Schneider says. “Middle-class white parents tend to be more vocal about concerns about homework … They feel entitled enough to voice their opinions.”

Schneider is all for revisiting taken-for-granted practices like homework, but thinks districts need to take care to be inclusive in that process. “I hear approximately zero middle-class white parents talking about how homework done best in grades K through two actually strengthens the connection between home and school for young people and their families,” he says. Because many of these parents already feel connected to their school community, this benefit of homework can seem redundant. “They don’t need it,” Schneider says, “so they’re not advocating for it.”

That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that homework is more vital in low-income districts. In fact, there are different, but just as compelling, reasons it can be burdensome in these communities as well. Allison Wienhold, who teaches high-school Spanish in the small town of Dunkerton, Iowa, has phased out homework assignments over the past three years. Her thinking: Some of her students, she says, have little time for homework because they’re working 30 hours a week or responsible for looking after younger siblings.

As educators reduce or eliminate the homework they assign, it’s worth asking what amount and what kind of homework is best for students. It turns out that there’s some disagreement about this among researchers, who tend to fall in one of two camps.

In the first camp is Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Cooper conducted a review of the existing research on homework in the mid-2000s , and found that, up to a point, the amount of homework students reported doing correlates with their performance on in-class tests. This correlation, the review found, was stronger for older students than for younger ones.

This conclusion is generally accepted among educators, in part because it’s compatible with “the 10-minute rule,” a rule of thumb popular among teachers suggesting that the proper amount of homework is approximately 10 minutes per night, per grade level—that is, 10 minutes a night for first graders, 20 minutes a night for second graders, and so on, up to two hours a night for high schoolers.

In Cooper’s eyes, homework isn’t overly burdensome for the typical American kid. He points to a 2014 Brookings Institution report that found “little evidence that the homework load has increased for the average student”; onerous amounts of homework, it determined, are indeed out there, but relatively rare. Moreover, the report noted that most parents think their children get the right amount of homework, and that parents who are worried about under-assigning outnumber those who are worried about over-assigning. Cooper says that those latter worries tend to come from a small number of communities with “concerns about being competitive for the most selective colleges and universities.”

According to Alfie Kohn, squarely in camp two, most of the conclusions listed in the previous three paragraphs are questionable. Kohn, the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing , considers homework to be a “reliable extinguisher of curiosity,” and has several complaints with the evidence that Cooper and others cite in favor of it. Kohn notes, among other things, that Cooper’s 2006 meta-analysis doesn’t establish causation, and that its central correlation is based on children’s (potentially unreliable) self-reporting of how much time they spend doing homework. (Kohn’s prolific writing on the subject alleges numerous other methodological faults.)

In fact, other correlations make a compelling case that homework doesn’t help. Some countries whose students regularly outperform American kids on standardized tests, such as Japan and Denmark, send their kids home with less schoolwork , while students from some countries with higher homework loads than the U.S., such as Thailand and Greece, fare worse on tests. (Of course, international comparisons can be fraught because so many factors, in education systems and in societies at large, might shape students’ success.)

Kohn also takes issue with the way achievement is commonly assessed. “If all you want is to cram kids’ heads with facts for tomorrow’s tests that they’re going to forget by next week, yeah, if you give them more time and make them do the cramming at night, that could raise the scores,” he says. “But if you’re interested in kids who know how to think or enjoy learning, then homework isn’t merely ineffective, but counterproductive.”

His concern is, in a way, a philosophical one. “The practice of homework assumes that only academic growth matters, to the point that having kids work on that most of the school day isn’t enough,” Kohn says. What about homework’s effect on quality time spent with family? On long-term information retention? On critical-thinking skills? On social development? On success later in life? On happiness? The research is quiet on these questions.

Another problem is that research tends to focus on homework’s quantity rather than its quality, because the former is much easier to measure than the latter. While experts generally agree that the substance of an assignment matters greatly (and that a lot of homework is uninspiring busywork), there isn’t a catchall rule for what’s best—the answer is often specific to a certain curriculum or even an individual student.

Given that homework’s benefits are so narrowly defined (and even then, contested), it’s a bit surprising that assigning so much of it is often a classroom default, and that more isn’t done to make the homework that is assigned more enriching. A number of things are preserving this state of affairs—things that have little to do with whether homework helps students learn.

Jack Schneider, the Massachusetts parent and professor, thinks it’s important to consider the generational inertia of the practice. “The vast majority of parents of public-school students themselves are graduates of the public education system,” he says. “Therefore, their views of what is legitimate have been shaped already by the system that they would ostensibly be critiquing.” In other words, many parents’ own history with homework might lead them to expect the same for their children, and anything less is often taken as an indicator that a school or a teacher isn’t rigorous enough. (This dovetails with—and complicates—the finding that most parents think their children have the right amount of homework.)

Barbara Stengel, an education professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, brought up two developments in the educational system that might be keeping homework rote and unexciting. The first is the importance placed in the past few decades on standardized testing, which looms over many public-school classroom decisions and frequently discourages teachers from trying out more creative homework assignments. “They could do it, but they’re afraid to do it, because they’re getting pressure every day about test scores,” Stengel says.

Second, she notes that the profession of teaching, with its relatively low wages and lack of autonomy, struggles to attract and support some of the people who might reimagine homework, as well as other aspects of education. “Part of why we get less interesting homework is because some of the people who would really have pushed the limits of that are no longer in teaching,” she says.

“In general, we have no imagination when it comes to homework,” Stengel says. She wishes teachers had the time and resources to remake homework into something that actually engages students. “If we had kids reading—anything, the sports page, anything that they’re able to read—that’s the best single thing. If we had kids going to the zoo, if we had kids going to parks after school, if we had them doing all of those things, their test scores would improve. But they’re not. They’re going home and doing homework that is not expanding what they think about.”

“Exploratory” is one word Mike Simpson used when describing the types of homework he’d like his students to undertake. Simpson is the head of the Stone Independent School, a tiny private high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that opened in 2017. “We were lucky to start a school a year and a half ago,” Simpson says, “so it’s been easy to say we aren’t going to assign worksheets, we aren’t going assign regurgitative problem sets.” For instance, a half-dozen students recently built a 25-foot trebuchet on campus.

Simpson says he thinks it’s a shame that the things students have to do at home are often the least fulfilling parts of schooling: “When our students can’t make the connection between the work they’re doing at 11 o’clock at night on a Tuesday to the way they want their lives to be, I think we begin to lose the plot.”

When I talked with other teachers who did homework makeovers in their classrooms, I heard few regrets. Brandy Young, a second-grade teacher in Joshua, Texas, stopped assigning take-home packets of worksheets three years ago, and instead started asking her students to do 20 minutes of pleasure reading a night. She says she’s pleased with the results, but she’s noticed something funny. “Some kids,” she says, “really do like homework.” She’s started putting out a bucket of it for students to draw from voluntarily—whether because they want an additional challenge or something to pass the time at home.

Chris Bronke, a high-school English teacher in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, told me something similar. This school year, he eliminated homework for his class of freshmen, and now mostly lets students study on their own or in small groups during class time. It’s usually up to them what they work on each day, and Bronke has been impressed by how they’ve managed their time.

In fact, some of them willingly spend time on assignments at home, whether because they’re particularly engaged, because they prefer to do some deeper thinking outside school, or because they needed to spend time in class that day preparing for, say, a biology test the following period. “They’re making meaningful decisions about their time that I don’t think education really ever gives students the experience, nor the practice, of doing,” Bronke said.

The typical prescription offered by those overwhelmed with homework is to assign less of it—to subtract. But perhaps a more useful approach, for many classrooms, would be to create homework only when teachers and students believe it’s actually needed to further the learning that takes place in class—to start with nothing, and add as necessary.

Homework Machine

The Homework Machine

Trade Paperback


Table of Contents

About the book.

Doing homework becomes a thing of the past! Meet the D Squad, a foursome of fifth graders at the Grand Canyon School made up of a geek, a class clown, a teacher's pet, and a slacker. They are bound together by one very big secret: the homework machine. Because the machine, code-named Belch, is doing their homework for them, they start spending a lot of time together, attracting a lot of attention. And attention is exactly what you don't want when you are keeping a secret. Before long, things start to get out of control, and Belch becomes much more powerful than they ever imagined. Now the kids are in a race against their own creation, and the loser could end up in jail...or worse!

About The Author

Dan Gutman hated to read when he was a kid. Then he grew up. Now he writes cool books like The Kid Who Ran for President ; Honus & Me ; The Million Dollar Shot ; Race for the Sky ; and The Edison Mystery: Qwerty Stevens, Back in Time . If you want to learn more about Dan or his books, stop by his website at

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  1. Is AI the New Homework Machine? Understanding AI and Its

    It also utilizes a technique called self-attention, which enables it to consider the relationships between words in a sentence and the context in which they are used. When given a prompt, ChatGPT uses all of this information to generate a response that is coherent and resembles natural language.

  2. The Homework Machine

    Because the machine, code named Belch, is doing their homework for them, they start spending a lot of time together, attracting a lot of attention. And attention is exactly what you don't want when you are keeping a secret.

  3. How does the homework machine work?

    About Press Copyright Contact us Creators Advertise Developers Terms Privacy Policy & Safety How YouTube works Test new features Press Copyright Contact us Creators ...

  4. Does Homework Work?

    Given that homework’s benefits are so narrowly defined (and even then, contested), it’s a bit surprising that assigning so much of it is often a classroom default, and that more isn’t done ...

  5. The Homework Machine

    Doing homework becomes a thing of the past! Meet the D Squad, a foursome of fifth graders at the Grand Canyon School made up of a geek, a class clown, a teacher's pet, and a slacker. They are bound together by one very big secret: the homework machine.