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Ethics and Best Practices: Artificial Intelligence and Social Work Education
By Karen Magruder, LCSW-S
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 3 P. 26

ChatGPT can write your students’ essays for them, and it probably won’t be caught by plagiarism-checking software. How should social work professors respond?

By now, you have probably heard the buzz about the newly released artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot called ChatGPT, an online marvel that can instantly write poetry, crack jokes, and even spit out cohesive essays on virtually any topic. With more than one hundred million active users inundating the servers to capacity, ChatGPT is the fastest growing computer application in history.1 Anyone with an email address can sign up to use this free tool as its designers test functionality. While Google or other search engines point searchers to relevant sources, ChatGPT combines a number of inputs to give one (often very detailed) answer. With the stroke of a keyboard, ChatGPT can provide users with comprehensive and succinct information addressing innumerable social work-related prompts, such as:

• Explain the biopsychosocial perspective.

• What is the difference between cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy?

• Give some examples of nonpharmacological interventions to reduce wandering for an individual with dementia.

• Explain the difference between equality and equity in terms that a child would understand.

The development of AI has been described as the fourth industrial revolution.2 AI chatbots are increasingly popular, with use in industries such as health care, online banking, and e-commerce already adopting them widely.3 We are even in the initial stages of seeing AI integrated into search engines, such as Bing, with mixed results.4 While social workers do not traditionally receive training on AI for use in education or practice settings, the rapid advancement of this technology will undoubtedly shape the social environment in which we operate. AI already has been used by social workers in the field to successfully address social issues such as HIV awareness among homeless youth, improving access to sexual health resources, assessing risk of child maltreatment, and predicting intimate partner violence.5 In the higher education world, ChatGPT and related AI technologies hold promise as new tools to engage social work students and expand access to clear and easily digestible information. But what are the risks?

Here are a few things social work students and professors should keep in mind as we navigate this new technology.

Potential for Misinformation
There have been widespread concerns that AI-generated responses, which may sound plausible and convincing, could, in fact, contain incorrect or misleading information.6 Furthermore, outputs may not accurately reflect the most current data; ChatGPT’s knowledge cutoff is 2021, for instance.7 In fact, OpenAI (the website that hosts ChatGPT) has posted the following disclaimer to new ChatGPT users: “While we have safeguards in place, the system may occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information and produce offensive or biased content. It is not intended to give advice.”7 ChatGPT does not cite its sources. Thus, social work educators have a responsibility to warn students about the limitations of trusting AI-chatbot-generated “answers.” Likewise, students should adopt a critical lens when utilizing AI platforms to seek information and always cross-reference this information with reputable and empirical sources.

Impediments to Critical Thinking
Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that ChatGPT is all-knowing and accurate. Another issue remains: How will easy access to such cogent “spoon fed” answers influence students’ ability to critically examine literature and effectively synthesize this information independently?8 ChatGPT, by its nature, is not capable of generating original ideas. Will relying on this inherently unoriginal tool for such convincing responses (say, to online discussion board prompts) limit students’ aptitude for producing original thoughts? Could the allure of an “easy out” to critical thinking cause these skills to atrophy in the long term? Conversely, will AI be the new calculator—a useful, commonplace, and trusted tool that helps generate answers more efficiently, freeing our time to think critically in other ways?

Academic Integrity
Essay responses generated by AI have been described as “frighteningly good,” with early reports of ChatGPT successfully writing a convincing five-paragraph essay on Wuthering Heights for a high school English class.9 Additionally, the dialoguing nature of ChatGPT allows the user to ask follow-up questions and direct modifications to an answer, with the AI “remembering” the whole conversation. This means that students would have the ability to easily modify an AI-generated response. For instance, the user could ask the program to modify the word count of a response or include certain key words. ChatGPT also allows users to command it to “try again,” resulting in a newly worded response. This means it’s nearly impossible for educators to check what the “ChatGPT answer” is to any given prompt—there’s a seemingly infinite array of answers even to the same question. Although using ChatGPT responses as a starting point for their own writing could be appropriate, students will undoubtedly push the envelope, attempting to pass AI-generated writing as their own original work. While early models are emerging to detect whether written text was human-written or AI-generated, these capabilities are unlikely to be fully integrated into commonly used existing plagiarism-tracking tools such as Turnitin or Unicheck any time soon.

ChatGPT is still in its early testing stages, receiving external feedback from users to improve system quality and safety. As subscription models are already emerging, to what extent will this technology continue to be free and open for public use indefinitely? Envisioning a world where institutions and students must pay to access such tools raises issues of equality and access. Beyond financial affordability, we must also consider the extent to which AI platforms will be accessible to individuals with disabilities. For example, how do screen readers and voice-to-text tools fare with these chat-style interfaces?

Educating Social Work Students for a Post-AI World
The NASW Code of Ethics implores social workers to “critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work.”10 Social work educators have a responsibility to stay up to date with emerging AI technology, and not only because of its many implications in the classroom; social work students must also be prepared to use AI in the field in an ethical and effective manner. For example, how will big data and machine learning affect client privacy and confidentiality, particularly in telehealth settings? For what policies related to AI should social workers advocate? Can we leverage AI to streamline administrative tasks, thus freeing time for more direct client services? What opportunities exist for interdisciplinary collaboration to address social issues using AI technology? How will social workers respond to meet social services needs if widespread adoption of AI leads to unemployment in sectors such as journalism,11 marketing, and graphic design? Might social work jobs themselves be displaced as the landscape of mental health care continues to evolve, with programs like WoeBot becoming increasingly sophisticated? Or will a revolution in AI-based telehealth expand access to mental health resources in underserved populations?

Looking Ahead
Social workers should be cautious about adopting either a utopian or apocalyptic view of an AI-rich future,12 but rather realistically consider how this technology can be responsibly harnessed to elevate higher education learning and ultimately maximize social good in the field. We have an opportunity as social workers to research the social impacts of AI. As the world increasingly leverages AI to solve complex social problems,13 social workers must remain at the forefront. To make that a reality, today’s social work educators must be ready to maximize the benefits and mitigate the drawbacks to its use in the classroom.

— Karen Magruder, LCSW-S, is an assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work and a doctoral (DSW) student at the University of Kentucky. She also manages a free social work education resources YouTube channel and a private practice providing therapy, clinical supervision, and tutoring for the Association of Social Work Boards licensing exams.


1. Hu K. ChatGPT sets record for fastest-growing user base – analyst note. Reuters website. https://www.reuters.com/technology/chatgpt-sets-record-fastest-growing-user-base-analyst-note-2023-02-01/. Published February 2, 2023. Accessed February 20, 2023.

2. Xing B, Marwala T. Implications of the fourth industrial age on higher education. arXiv website. Published March 17, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2023.

3. Yang S, Evans C. Opportunities and challenges in using AI chatbots in higher education. Proceedings of the 2019 3rd International Conference on Education and E-Learning. 2019:79-83.

4. Korn J. Microsoft is looking for ways to rein in Bing AI chatbot after troubling responses. CNN website. https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/17/tech/microsoft-bing-ai-changes. Published February 17, 2023. Accessed February 21, 2023.

5. Tambe M, Rice E, eds. Artificial Intelligence and Social Work. Cambridge University Press; 2018.

6. Shankland S. Why we’re obsessed with the mind-blowing ChatGPT AI chatbot. CNET website. https://www.cnet.com/tech/computing/why-everyones-obsessed-with-chatgpt-a-mindblowing-ai-chatbot/. Updated February 19, 2023. Accessed December 7, 2022.

7. Introducing ChatGPT. OpenAI website. https://openai.com/blog/chatgpt/. Published November 30, 2022. Accessed December 5, 2022.

8. McMurtrie B. How artificial intelligence is changing teaching. The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 12, 2018. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-artificial-intelligence-is-changing-teaching/

9. Murphy Kelly S. This AI chatbot is dominating social media with its frighteningly good essays. CNN website. https://www.cnn.com/2022/12/05/tech/chatgpt-trnd/index.html. Updated May 19, 2023. Accessed December 5, 2022.

10. Code of ethics. NASW website. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

11. Waterson J. Microsoft sacks journalists to replace them with robots. The Guardian. May 30, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/may/30/microsoft-sacks-journalists-to-replace-them-with-robots. Accessed December 5, 2022.

12. Boyd R, Holton RJ. Technology, innovation, employment and power: does robotics and artificial intelligence really mean social transformation? J Sociol. 2018;54(3):331-345.

13. Goldkind L. Social work and artificial intelligence: into the matrix. Soc Work. 2021;66(4):372-374.