Robot hand on keyboard
January 24, 2023

Is ChatGPT a threat to education?

UC Riverside experts share thoughts on the AI-powered language model that understands and responds to natural language

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
January 24, 2023

ChatGPT, which the company OpenAI recently released, generates text and can even write essays. The artificial intelligence, or AI, chatbot has already been reported to be a coauthor on four papers and preprints. What does this mean for the future of education? How can universities best address the challenges ChatGPT, or “Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer,” poses? Could the bot enhance education? Does its use have any benefits in the classroom?

Thought leaders at the University of California, Riverside, share their views on this AI language model in the following Q&A:

Yue Dong, assistant professor of computer science and engineering

Q: What can ChatGPT do easily? What can it not do well? How could it best be used?

A: ChatGPT, as a large language model, learned to generate human-like text based on a given prompt or context. It can do most of the text-generation tasks that involve natural language for communication. Examples of these tasks are text completion (e.g., email and report writing), paraphrasing, text summarization, machine translation, and question-answering. In addition, it can also be used for conversational AI applications, such as chatbots and virtual assistants. Additionally, ChatGPT has demonstrated some success in writing code.

ChatGPT is not well-suited for tasks that require logic, specialized knowledge, or up-to-date information. Observations suggest that ChatGPT struggles with arithmetic computations or complicated mathematical calculations, indicating that logic is not completely acquired by such models. Moreover, these large language models cannot be updated the same way we update knowledge bases by simply replacing or updating entities. In the current model, most of the training text is derived from publicly available data before 2021, making such models unable to generate accurate information in a timely manner. 

While the ChatGPT platform has a wide range of applications related to text generation, outputs should be evaluated critically and used with caution, as they may contain false, biased, or outdated information.

Morris Maduro, professor of biology

Q: How could universities like UCR best address the use of ChatGPT?

A: For the short term, departments and instructors need to evaluate how problematic ChatGPT is for achieving learning outcomes in their classes. If students can avoid real learning and get high grades on homework assignments by using it, instructors will need to either make assessments “ChatGPT-proof” or find ways to incorporate ChatGPT in helping students to build new skills.

It will be impractical to try to ban or prevent the use of ChatGPT. AI tools are here to stay. They will improve and become increasingly important across disciplines. In the long run, departments may therefore need to re-evaluate their teaching mission, and ask themselves, if a chatbot can do most of what a college graduate can do, then what is the value of a degree?

Samia Alkam, doctoral student in education policy

Q: What are the main concerns about the use of ChatGPT in a university setting? Are there any benefits? 

A: The use of homework aids in higher education is not new. For years, students have used sites like Chegg or Quizlet to cut corners as they complete homework assignments or take online quizzes. In response, instructors and faculty have had to adapt to these challenges and design assessments that can bypass the use of these tools. 

I view ChatGPT in the same light. Essentially, ChatGPT compiles information readily available online to form a response to a given prompt. The AI has no capacity for critical thinking and often misses the mark whenever a prompt requires any critical or abstract thinking. If university faculty want to bypass the threat of ChatGPT, then perhaps the rigor of their assignments needs to be increased. Therefore, the concern around ChatGPT is not in regard to what it is now, rather, it should surround what ChatGPT can become as it continues to develop. 

Ward Beyermann, professor of physics and astronomy

Q: How might ChatGPT be incorporated in the classroom? How might it be used to enhance education?

A: While there are many concerns that ChatGPT compromises academic assessment, it and better optimized versions may force us to shift our curriculum to higher levels of critical thinking. Beyond this, we may discover ways it can be used to enhance the learning process. If students focus on advanced aspects of their schoolwork, chatbots could assist with more menial educational tasks. For example, some instructors are experimenting with new forms of student engagement, including project-based learning. Perhaps a chatbot could be used to brainstorm on these projects. Even more impactful would be to use this technology to personalize assessment and maybe even the learning experience. Learning effectiveness could be enhanced by customizing the learning process at an individual level to better match a diversified student body.

Goldberry Long, associate professor of teaching in creative writing

Q: How might ChatGPT affect instruction in creative writing?

A: ChatGPT uses a predictive algorithm that replicates common patterns, and thus produces text that is unoriginal, unvoiced, and lacking in style. Novice creative writing students might struggle to write with those qualities. Instructors often show students a published story, but students struggle to bridge the gap between their writing and the published text. Many instructors consider it unethical to collectively revise student text. Since the AI generates texts that lack voice, style, and originality, classes can discuss and revise the writing without ethical quandaries, allowing students to learn the techniques and thinking that writers use to bring voice and human sensibility to writing.

Matthew Lang, associate professor of teaching in economics

Q: How will AI like ChatGPT change how teaching is done?

A: ChatGPT has the potential to significantly impact the way teaching is conducted by leveraging its advanced capabilities in the same way that computers and the internet have in the past. It is likely to be integrated into many classes in the coming decade, and I personally hope to integrate it into a textbook I wrote a few years ago.

From my experience using ChatGPT over the past two months, it is evident that a fundamental understanding of the subject matter is crucial for effectively utilizing its capabilities. While it can generate advanced computer code quickly, it should not be seen as a replacement for higher-level problem-solving skills.

In a course like econometrics, where students are required to work with data throughout the course, ChatGPT can be particularly beneficial. It allows for a reduction in time spent on tedious tasks such as data loading and troubleshooting, which can be a source of frustration for students. This enables me as an educator to focus more on the critical analysis of empirical models, leading to a deeper understanding of the subject for my students.

I am excited to see how ChatGPT will improve education for both students and faculty alike.

Daniel Novak, assistant clinical professor of social medicine, population, and public health

(The responses to the following two questions were generated by ChatGPT and edited by Novak.)

Q: What are some of the positive aspects of using ChatGPT for medical student research projects?

A: There are several positive aspects of using ChatGPT for medical student research projects.

  1. Efficiency: ChatGPT can help students quickly and easily access a vast amount of information, which can save them time and effort in their research.
  2. Assistance in data analysis: ChatGPT can assist students in analyzing large amounts of data and identifying patterns and trends.
  3. Improved writing skills: Students can use ChatGPT to generate written summaries of their research, which can help them improve their writing skills.
  4. Improved knowledge retention: ChatGPT can help students understand and retain complex information by summarizing it in a more accessible format.
  5. Assistance in language barriers: For non-native students or students studying in a foreign language, ChatGPT can assist in understanding and interpreting complex medical texts, allowing them to participate more fully in their education.

It's important to keep in mind that ChatGPT is a tool, and it should be used alongside other sources of information and guidance, rather than as a standalone resource. And it's also important to note that the output of ChatGPT should be critically evaluated before being used in any research work.

Q: What are some concerns about medical students using or misusing ChatGPT for the research work they are required to do during their education? How might these concerns be best addressed?

A: Medical students using ChatGPT for research may face concerns such as over-reliance on the model, lack of originality, and plagiarism. To address these concerns, training on responsible use of language models and guidelines for evaluating the reliability and validity of information generated by the model can be provided to students. Additionally, teachers and professors should be aware of these concerns and discuss with students about how to use ChatGPT for their research work. To avoid plagiarism, students should be educated on academic integrity and plagiarism detection software can be implemented.

Novak's other thoughts on ChatGPT.

Header image credit: baona/Getty images.

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