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Chat GPT in higher ed: Will artificial intelligence help or hinder authentic learning?

ChatGPT, the generative artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot launched by OpenAI in November 2022, has caused quite the stir across higher education. The chatbot’s list of capabilities is long: it can write poems, essays, computer code, and musical scores, to name a few. It passed Wharton’s MBA exam, the United States Medical Licensing Exam, and United States law course exams. And it’s easily accessible – anyone with a computer and an internet connection can freely access the powers of ChatGPT.

Instructors at McGill and other institutions are considering the potential effects of ChatGPT and similar AI tools in higher ed. I spoke with Dr. Chris Buddle, Associate Provost, Teaching and Academic Planning, and Dr. Robin Beech, Dean of Students, on the subject.

Claire: What opportunities can you imagine for teaching and learning in higher education with tools like ChatGPT?

Chris: Technology such as ChatGPT, and other technologies we can’t predict yet, shake some foundational elements of higher ed, and what it means to teach and learn in today’s society with today’s tools. We’re being forced to reconsider how we think about teaching and learning, and, in particular, how we think about assessment of student learning. Assessment shouldn’t just be about assigning grades, rather, it should be leveraged to support students’ learning. A great example of how one might rethink assessments to account for AI tools is the typical essay assignment. Instructors could ask students to hand in multiple drafts or contextualize the essay questions in ways that are “individual” or aren’t something that can just be gleaned from what’s available online. Instructors are already moving in that direction, and ChatGPT is an opportunity and a nudge to do more of that.

I don’t think it would be wise or feasible to say, “We don’t accept the use of AI tools at McGill university.” We need to grapple with the discomfort of learning to work with the tool and evolve our practices in light of new technologies.

Robin: It’s easy to forget that there is a long history behind tools that can change our workflows, impact how we do some things, and perhaps seem threatening. The adoption of the calculator is an example. It created problems when it was first introduced. In the meantime, it has changed the way we do mathematics, and now, nobody gives it a second thought. An advantage we have at the University is that people are used to questioning everything and exploring different possibilities, so there will be a lot of thought going into sound uses of AI tools for teaching and learning. I also think AI tools like ChatGPT give us an opportunity to strengthen critical thinking skills as users must be able to assess the veracity of their output. Determining what information is true is an important skill in today’s world, and ChatGPT, whose information is sometimes inaccurate, requires that skill from its users.

Claire: With the advancements in AI chatbots, what potential ethical concerns do you foresee with the advancements in AI chatbots for student authorship and academic integrity?

Chris: I think it raises real questions about what originality means and how we define authorship. In many contexts, collaborative work at universities is of value, and while it might sound a bit provocative, perhaps collaborative work could include machine learning. The questions do not have good answers right now, but we need the conversations. Education about and awareness of the tools are therefore necessary. Our instructors and students can then understand both the opportunities and the limits of an AI such as ChatGPT.

Claire: What potential dangers do you foresee for student learning in higher education, if any?

Robin: I would say a degradation of effort and the understanding of what you’re supposed to come out with when you’ve gone through a course. Students want to get As, so if they see an easy way where they can put little effort in and still get the A at the end, that will have a huge impact on the way some students approach learning in general. There will still be students who want to make the effort for their own learning, but some might take a shortcut with ChatGPT.

Claire: Do either of you have any specific ideas or suggestions for how McGill instructors respond to ChatGPT?

Robin: Instructors are responsible for course content and assessment. They know what the content is, what they want to teach, and how to assess student learning. So, they will need to decide if it’s appropriate for students to use AI in their course. If it’s not, they should say so. If it is, it will be important for instructors to emphasize the need to use such tools responsibly to avoid violations of academic integrity.

Chris: Instructors need to be clear with students about expectations. Having statements in course outlines about AI tools will clarify for students whether an instructor is open to students using AI tools in any part of their course.

Claire: Do either of you have any other thoughts not yet touched upon regarding the impact of models like ChatGPT on the future of higher education?

Chris: I’ll add that the impact of a tool like ChatGPT on higher ed will vary according to context. In some disciplines, such as Musical Performance, perhaps not so much – ChatGPT can’t perform in lieu of students. In contrast, Music Research, might feel an impact because generative AI tools can write musical scores. We need to be cautious not to assume a one size fits all approach to these technologies. And we have to remember that while AI tools might be interesting and fascinating, at the end of the day, we have to continue to use our own intelligence and common sense to make appropriate use of such tools.

Many thanks to ChatGPT for its help in creating the questions for this interview. 😊

Instructor resources:

Are you new to AI tools? Find out about them with Learning with AI: Exploring the Potential of Generative Tech, a self-paced series of exercises that will allow you to “explore the potential of generative AI in education, discuss current trends, and start working on best practices.”

Seeking ideas for updating your course outline for ChatGPT and getting creative with assignments? Check out Update your course syllabus for ChatGPT and A practical guide to ethical use of ChatGPT in essay writing.

Wondering how to address authorship? OpenAI has a Sharing & Publication Policy and recommended statement for attribution. This might be useful for discussions about ethics, and to emphasize learning and metacognition.

Looking for ChatGPT prompt suggestions? Check out A Teacher’s Prompt Guide to ChatGPT

Photo credit: Alexandra Koch

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