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ChatGPT: A threat to education? (Opinion)

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
December 20, 2022
Table of Contents

The College Essay Is Dead”, declared Stephen Marche in The Atlantic, about how the time-honored learning tradition will be “disrupted from the ground up” by Chat GPT. However, Stephen interprets this as an opportunity to rethink education in the age where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is thriving. 

So how can institutions initiate this transformation? How can they make learning more engaging, more meaningful for students in this new world? The answer is: to change the way we teach and embrace the pedagogical advances. 

Join Cole Groom of FeedbackFruits and Patricia Luna of TAMU for an in-depth webinar exploring authentic assessment and how it can transform your approach to student evaluations

The AI chatbot that puts an end to learning

The introduction of ChatGPT – an AI tool developed by OpenAI that is able to write full-on student essays, elaborate codes, and even solve math problems once again stirs up the “AI versus education” debate. Institutions are caught up in the question: Is AI technology a threat to education?  

The rise of AI technology
The rise of AI technology

Teachers are concerned about students using the free and accessible tool as a Wikipedia replacement to complete homework and to write assignments for them, endangering students’ willingness to develop skills like writing and researching.

Free, accessible tools which allow students to complete assignments without much effort raises concerns of cheating, academic disintegrity, and above all, the loss of learning ability. Educators fear that students will become lazy thinkers, and fail to develop lifelong skills like critical thinking, researching, or writing. 

“Students are going to think and use this chatbot as if it is a know-all. That’s because it's a technology that is creating these things that sound really legitimate, they are going to assume that it is and take it at face value.” - Austin Ambrose

Before making the conclusion that AI has killed learning, it’s wise to question why students are resorting to AI to write their essays or other unethical practices since the dawn of time such as plagiarism or cheating during exams. One of the biggest tech spending during the pandemic was for proctoring solutions, and it’s hard to come by a university that is not already using a plagiarism checker. While these solutions and future ones for AI-powered essay writing may provide short-term solutions to the wound, it doesn’t touch the core problem: ChatGPT is not and will not be the last to disrupt the traditional learning practices, because the way we provide education does not inspire students to learn and there will always be some who look for an easy way out.

Students are no longer engaged in the lectures, and such disengagement has further “skyrocketed” during the pandemic outbreak, said Jeffrey R. Young, managing editor of EdSurge. In online classrooms, where physical contact is absent, it is much harder to maintain the constant interaction, and connections. And students come to develop new behaviors of disengagement: turning off the camera, muting themselves, even skipping the class just to watch the recording later on. Sydney Dawkins is just among many students who developed some “bad habits” during the online transition. She said: 

“I would watch full-on TV shows. I'd be doing other things, and kind of treating it almost like a podcast—like I'm listening, but I'm doing other stuff.” 

However, is the pandemic really to blame for such a surge in student engagement? Instructors have been complaining about their students playing video games, fidgeting with their phones, or not participating in discussions during in-class lectures, even long before COVID. 

The point is, one way lectures where instructors would talk and students listen, take notes no longer works, either offline or online. Higher education is not about getting a degree, but a place for meaningful interactions, and opportunities to develop lifelong skills. As technology is evolving each day, we are welcoming a new generation of tech-savvy, self-aware learners with diverse needs, barriers, and perspectives. It is then important to embrace the innovations within the curriculum, rather than neglecting them. 

The College Essay Is Dead”, declared Stephen Marche in The Atlantic, about how the time-honored learning tradition will be “disrupted from the ground up” by Chat GPT. However, Stephen interprets this as an opportunity to rethink education in the age where AI is thriving. 

So how can institutions initiate this transformation? How can they make learning more engaging, more meaningful for students in this new world? The answer is: to change the way we teach and embrace the pedagogical advances. 

How AI has changed higher education

The rise of ChatGPT is the sign for universities to stop ignoring AI technology, and to recognize the changes it brings to higher education. Below are the most prominent trends associated with the AI influence. 

Focus on digital literacy training for both students and faculty  

“Students are going to think and use this chatbot (Chat GPT) as if it is a know-all. That’s because it's a technology that is creating these things that sound really legitimate, they are going to assume that it is and take it at face value.” – said Austin Ambrose, a middle school teacher in Idaho. 

Every second, a new digital tool, or technology is introduced, opening up new ways to access information, to complete time consuming tasks. The ability to appropriately evaluate, assess, and utilize the technology and incoming information – or so called digital literacy has emerged as a critical skill set for students. Accordingly, the curriculum needs to be adapted to accommodate digital literacy. 

“Information literacy is the single most important skill to develop if we are to counter the misinformation that convincing AI-generated text can produce.” – Nancy Gleeson

When we held a webinar on learner-centered course design with Associate Director of Learning Systems Support at Central Michigan University Marnie Roestel last month, someone from the audience asked about the role of proctoring in ensuring the integrity of online courses, Marnie responded (and we fully agree):

“There are a lot of great tools and technology out there as a cheating deterrent. There is no fool proof system unfortunately. If students are determined to find a way to cheat, they will find a way to cheat unfortunately. Incorporating a variety of strategies into your assessments to deter cheating is probably the best method and setup.” 

So how can institutions respond to the rise of AI technology? Marnie again gave an excellent remark: 

“Rely on not just one tool but rely on several things: creating tasks that are open-ended questions or essays is probably a great strategy; randomizing questions and randomizing answers so that no two students are getting presented with the same set of questions or in the same order that's another way (...) Just depends on the goals and achievements of for a particular assessment. Consider maybe changing the activity entirely where students work together, collaborate, learn from each other. Discuss a particular question, arrive at the answer together.”

However, adaptation of curriculum requires proper professional training to help instructors develop thorough understanding and skills to integrate the advanced technologies. With the continuation and normalization of hybrid/ online learning, it is important that faculties develop certain mastery over the use of different technologies, including AI. Many institutions are investing more in training efforts so that faculty members can improve their instruction and course delivery.

Accommodate AI technology in curriculum (teaching and learning)

Instead of seeing AI technology as a threat, many educators view this intervention as a great opportunity to enhance, and scale effective teaching. Nancy Gleeson, Associate Professor at New York University Abu Dhabi reflected on the need for AI-integrated curriculum

“We need to embrace these tools and integrate them into pedagogies and policies. Lockdown browsers, strict dismissal policies and forbidding the use of these platforms is not a sustainable way forward.”

There are many ways educators can incorporate AI technology into the curriculum to enhance the teaching and learning experience. 

In the case of ChatGPT, instructors suggest integrating the chatbot into writing courses to help students generate writing ideas, or creating an analysis activity in which students analyze the ChatGPT-generated essays, identify weak spots, and improve poorly structured sections. This AI tool can also be beneficial in drafting course rubrics, saving faculties plenty of time. 

And the same can be applied for other AI technology, as long as educators have the heart and willingness to embrace this change. 

How FeedbackFruits is responding to the AI debate

At FeedbackFruits, we developed two initiatives that leverage AI for learning and easing faculty workload. Automated Feedback and feedback on feedback. 

Automated Feedback is the result of the collaborative effort between Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and FeedbackFruits to harness Artificial Intelligence (AI) to increase the quality of students’ products, stimulate deeper learning, while freeing up time for teachers to provide higher-order feedback.

Automated Feedback: AI-powered writing assistant
Automated Feedback harnesses AI to generate instant, formative feedback on students' academic writing

In a large student cohort, it is more challenging to provide detailed, real-time, and actionable feedback on each student’s assignment. The Automated Feedback tool generates instant feedback on students’ lower-order writing skills such as grammar and style, which frees up time for instructors to focus on argumentation or reasoning. ​​With these timely feedback, students can iterate on an improved final submission, as well as increasing their autonomy and self-guidance throughout the learning experience. To fit into the existing workflow, the tool integrates with different learning management systems (LMSs) including Canvas, Brightspace, Moodle, and Blackboard. Based on the teacher-configured rubric of feedback criteria, Automated Feedback analyzes the assignment and provides actionable feedback for students, thus helping them develop their academic writing skills, while reducing the reviewing workload of the teacher.

Many instructors from institutions worldwide have been using Automated Feedback in their writing courses to enhance the feedback process. For example, Dr. Adam Cardilini at Deakin University used the tool to provide his students with personalized feedback on their written work. Students could opt to use Automated Feedback inside their D2L environment to generate feedback suggestions on lower-order writing skills such as grammar and style. The implementation of the AI really helped scale up his teaching process, remarked Dr. Cardilini. 

"Ultimately I'd like to provide detailed feedback for every single assignment but that's unrealistic. Automated Feedback did something I couldn't provide for students." 

Besides harnessing AI to generate automatic feedback, we also realize its potential in guiding the feedback process. The Automated Feedback Coach was introduced as an assistant to help students provide quality feedback during the peer or group assessment activity. An important part of the peer feedback process is letting students know how to deliver good feedback. Simply saying “It is good” or “Great job” doesn’t do much, but when saying “It’s good because...”, explaining to their peers why, the comment becomes much more helpful. In fact, students’ feedback often falls into either too short, too positive or negative spectrum. This is due to lack of guidance and also unwillingness to complete the activity. It is undoubtedly challenging for instructors to follow, and provide instruction for each student in their feedback delivery process. That's why we introduced the Automated Feedback Coach as an AI-power writing assistant for instructors and students. 

Automated Feedback Coach: AI writing feedback assistant
Automated Feedback Coach

Now available as a plugin of the Group Member Evaluation tool, instructors can activate this feature to provide real time suggestions on students' feedback. For now, the model can automatically generate suggestions when the feedback is: too short, too general, sounds like a personal attack, overly positive or negative, or overlapped with other given feedback. The AI coach also identifies and praises students for quality feedback comments. 

During our implementation process of these AI technology, we have encountered concerns regarding their level accuracy, and data privacy: What if the AI makes mistakes? And where does all students’ feedback go? 

Responding to these questions, Joost Verdoorn, our Chief Product Officer (CPO) said: 

“It’s inevitable that at some point AI will make mistakes. Hence, we believe any tech company should design with this in mind and anticipate failures before they happen. That’s why we adhere to the EU guidelines on AI as much as possible to monitor and address potential faults. To protect information privacy, we conform to the EU's privacy standards (GDPR). The real-time processing of the students' feedback is done fully autonomously without exposure to employees, exclusively on servers at Leafcloud, a Dutch company in the EU that also adheres to GDPR.”

Joost continued: 

But above all, we want to use AI as a formative way to guide students on how to assess information and work alongside the technology itself. Such a skill is absolutely essential in a world that is constantly changing and evolving.”

Learning is not dead

Nancy Gleason concluded her article with a remark: 

“Some claim the essay is dead. I disagree. Humans plus technology are the way forward. As educators, we have to teach our students what that means in practice. The essay isn’t dead, but the process of creating one is changing.”

AI technology is never going to bring an end to education, it only offers great potential to accelerate the educational transformation. It is time that institutions harness the power of AI, of new technologies to create better learning environments that are inclusive, flexible, and responsive to each and every student. 

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