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Faculty Ponder Impact of ChatGPT on Higher Education

Screen of ChatGPT
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One thing known about the chatbot ChatGPT and generative AI technology is that there is a lot of unknowns.

“We don’t know what the impact will be,” said Brooke Knight, Assistant Provost for Faculty Affairs. “This is the one technology that really stands out as being significant to altering enormous aspects of life.”

Launched in November 2022, ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a chatbot developed by the company OpenAI. There are other chatbots, but ChatGPT quickly gained attention for being able to do things like write essays, poetry, stories in mere seconds, or discuss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s term “shadow self”.

In education, there is a great concern about whether ChatGPT can be used to cheat on assignments, papers, and exams. ChatGPT’s capabilities are still being determined, but it has passed law exams in four courses at University of Minnesota, and an exam at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.  

Senior affiliated faculty member David Gerzof Richard started playing with ChatGPT when it debuted in November. He wanted to learn how a chatbot can be used to facilitate learning in the classroom, not how students could use it to cheat. He gave ChatGPT the same assignment he gave his students – to write a press release for the nonexistent iPhone 15.

ChatGPT got a B+ on the assignment.

“It was able to put it together a paper based upon what it found in news announcements and reviews of previous iPhones to be able to surmise what it could be,” said Richard. “It couldn’t look at incremental changes of pixel calculation, and instead it took the megapixels of the most recent iPhone.” 

Richard, founder and CEO of Big Fish PR, feels ChatGPT communicates at an eighth- or ninth-grade level. It provides information, but without a bibliography or citations.

From a PR industry perspective, ChatGPT’s search function can help generate a quick database of journalists and contacts, which Richard compared to media databases Muck Rack and Cision.

Knight said the most public function of chatbots will be through search capabilities. Microsoft recently updated its search engine, Bing, with a version of ChatGPT, and the results are scaring people, Time reports.

“Instead of depending upon sifting through search results, they’ll get one answer,” said Knight. “That’s a positive and a negative. It’s difficult to imagine there is just one answer to a question. There is no discernment by humans to determine what is right. Truth and reality are being contested by having a machine spit back an answer to you.”

To Cheat or Not to Cheat? That Is Not the Question

Is it cheating to use ChatGPT with assignments? That is an ethical question presently being discussed casually and formally.

Interim Provost Jan Roberts-Breslin said Emerson’s current plagiarism policy prohibits any example of work that is not the student’s from being used.

“I think as faculty discuss it and learn more about it, they will be able to make policies of how to best incorporate it or not into teaching strategy and pedagogy,” said Roberts-Breslin.

Roberts-Breslin said those conversations are bubbling up from students and faculty.

In January’s School of the Arts newsletter, Dean Rob Sabal grabbed the Emerson community’s attention with a standard “welcome back everyone” letter. Here are the first two paragraphs:

Welcome to another year’s beginning – a new calendar, a fresh start, a chance to embrace the boundless possibilities of teaching, scholarship and creative work with open arms.

As we stand on the threshold of this new year, I cannot help but feel a sense of excitement and gratitude for the opportunity to work with such an amazing group of educators, artists, scholars, and administrators. Your hard work and dedication to the school are a constant inspiration, and it is an honor to be a part of this community of creators.

Then Sabal provided a disclaimer: The letter was written entirely by ChatGPT.

“I understand the uneasiness many faculty and staff have for the rapid development of AI and its potential impact in and out of the classroom,” wrote Sabal. “My hope is that we spend some time this year preparing ourselves for the profound changes that AI technology will bring to the world of teaching and learning in the arts.”

Sabal asked interested SOA faculty to join a group to explore AI such as ChatGPT, Midjourney, and other image-based systems, to determine possible impacts to education and the arts. The group will meet several times during the semester. Sabal provided a preliminary list of reading materials from media and scholarly sources such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Tech Magazine, Vulture, and CBS News.

Knight said he wants the conversations to be in smaller settings to foster in-depth analysis before having a town hall faculty meeting later this semester or after the semester. He said there’s been a range of emotions from faculty.

“From, ‘Holy crap! This is the end of teaching and learning,’ to other people who look at it as an amazing tool and want to know how we can best use it,” said Knight.

Knight said academic cabinet members and the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) are discussing generative AI technology. CITL is working with faculty to determine options in class and best practices, said Knight. He thinks there will be a weary acceptance and adaptation, as there’s an understanding the technology is out in the world. Knight imagines assessment of student learning will shift.

“I think the real big question in everybody’s mind is: ‘Whither the student research paper?’” said Knight. “An argument can be made that having something else generate the text, with the student editing, finding citations, changing the writing, is a meaningful activity and can demonstrate learning, even if they didn’t literally write every word. Some faculty will ban it. Some others will find other ways to assess student learning.”

Knight compared the invention of generative AI technology to the invention of the camera in the late 19th century. Many people felt that humans were no longer making art.

Richard said one of his students said they were uncomfortable with using ChatGPT for school assignments. Richard told his students that he’s not showing them how to cheat.

“I’m a communication scientist. This is how innovation in communications happens. It’s by playing with these things and understanding them,” said Richard

He said there is an in-between to using chatbots.

“The way I see ChatGPT working in the real world, outside of the academic world, in a media or PR agency, is writing the first draft and then it becomes a timesaver, like spellcheck or autocorrect,” said Richard. “I’m sure there are teachers in the past that looked at those things as cheating. If you’re learning how to correctly spell a world that you always misspell, then maybe you learn to spell it right.”

Richard said if a student is asked to write five reasons why Edward Bernays is important to the world of PR, and they just copy and paste and turn it in, the student is not learning anything.

“There’s a question of how much to use it as a tool. This isn’t anything crazy or new,” said Richard. “We, especially at Emerson, really concentrate on the quality of communication, not just quantity.”

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