In the short few weeks that professor Alex Lawrence has taught his sales technology course this semester at Weber State University, he finds the level of discussion his students are already having “remarkable.”
Lawrence is one of academia’s earliest adopters of the controversial ChatGPT AI in the classroom, and thanks to it, Lawrence has witnessed a sizable elevation in student comprehension of class curriculum at a very early stage of the spring semester. He sat in the back of the classroom of one his first classes this spring semester, and, as he recalled, was “blown away.”
“This is the second week? This sounds better in many cases than the end of the semester,” he said. “I mean, their starting point is just so much better than it’s been historically.”
Students will use it: Get over it
As a member of his school’s professional sales department, Lawrence believes it’s his responsibility to expose his students to any tool that maximizes student success. Before ChatGPT, his class used Gong.io, an AI software that studies customer interactions.
“My job is to bring my students the latest and greatest technologies in business, so they’re prepared and know how to use them, he said. “I’m not only going to allow them to use these technologies, I am going to encourage them to use it, and I’m going to teach them how to use it.”
It’s a losing battle keeping students away from technology that excites them, and Lawrence argues that any effort to keep a student away from it is futile. He believes it shouldn’t be a controversial practice for teachers to show students how to make a ChatGPT-derived answer undetectable to cheating software.
“I tell my students ‘I’m going to show you. If you want to do it, you’re going to find out anyway, so let’s just talk openly about this.’ Most of them know about it anyway, and if they don’t yet, they will.”
ChatGPT is a tool; not a tell-all
Some faculty don’t think it takes a complex software to detect ChatGPT’s output if you take a second to read the work.
“It’s a glorified search engine with a bland and awkward conversational tone that I wouldn’t recommend for any good writing,” said Valerie Ross, senior director of Marks Family Center for Excellence in Writing at University of Pennsylvania.
Allowing ChatGPT to do the actual writing is “very messy,” littered with plagiarism, incorrect information, and bias, not to mention the prose itself is sterile, vague, and wordy. Students’ papers, Ross argues, is still leagues ahead of the tool.
“Human writers draw from our experience, judgment, and intuition. It’s fascinating for me to compare what essays my students put out compared to ChatGPT puts out, and it was actually inspiring to see how textured students write,” she said. “I don’t think we appreciate that texture until you see the kind of Mad Libs writing that ChatGPT does.”
That being said, Ross does encourage students to use the AI. It can act as a quick remedy to finding new databases and resources for research, provide structural feedback on a paper and identify weaknesses, and format in-text citations handily.
Ryan Baker, an educational data mining and learning analytics professor at UPenn, believes we should leverage it as a tool as we would any other. He plans to implement a policy in his syllabus that requires students to cite ChatGPT and other AI when they use it.
“Instead of even thinking about it as cheating, we should encourage students to use these tools heavily, be open about how they’re doing it, and design assignments that leverage that rather than trying to ‘catch’ it,” he said.
Adapting the classroom
It’s the way students communicate their ideas that has to change, not what tools they’re allowed to use. Lawrence learned this in the new way he teaches.
Lawrence from Weber State changed his class structure to adapt to ChatGPT. A student who uses it on their assignments must do a presentation without the aid of the work they turned in. In this environment, they are open to real-time feedback and questions from his or her peers, which tests their understanding of material better than a paper would. The whole class has benefited as result.
“It forces them to internalize and think about and share this stuff in their own words, in language they can relate to,” he said. “It’s reinforcing the learning aspect of the discussion as well.”
Ross believes that the classroom has been overdue for an overhaul.
“Teaching has to move away from a memorization, fact-driven model because everyone has their cellphones,” she said. “It’s not about finding information; it’s about how you communicate it. That’s everything. And that truly is something that’s exciting, not something that should be feared.”