Embracing ChatGPT

Universities have long embraced new technologies as learning tools, from the calculator to the smartphone. Today, we stand at the forefront of yet another technological revolution: the rise of artificial intelligence and language models like ChatGPT. As a university administrator, I firmly believe that embracing ChatGPT as a learning tool can have a transformative impact on higher education.

One of the most exciting potential applications of ChatGPT is in the field of research. By coupling ChatGPT with other AI programs like Wolfram, we can unlock new insights and discoveries that would have been impossible just a few years ago. For example, imagine being able to use ChatGPT to quickly sift through vast amounts of data and identify patterns that could help us create innovative solutions to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This could lead to new breakthroughs in areas like clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and climate change.

ChatGPT's potential is not limited to research. It can also be used to enhance teaching and learning in a variety of ways. For example, ChatGPT can be used to create personalized learning experiences for students, by adapting to their individual needs and abilities. And perhaps most importantly, ChatGPT can be used to augment human expertise, by providing real-time feedback and support to students and teachers. This last point is particularly important at a time when so many are trying to capitalize on the need to scale education and make it more accessible. Under the guise of reimagining education, they have been pushing models of self-directed learning in which students are essentially expected to teach themselves. In many of these cases, the model is failing, and students simply wind up frustrated and without structure. ChatGPT has the potential to fill in a critical gap in this model by serving as a guide and ever-present subject matter expert.

I acknowledge that a major concern of some is that ChatGPT sometimes gives incorrect information, but packages it in a well structured argument so that it sounds good. This makes it easy for students to use factually incorrect information. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the fact that people (even professional teachers and faculty members) are also sometimes (often) wrong. As Stephen Wolfman reminds us, “...when it comes to setting up things that have to be perfect, machine learning just isn’t the way to do it—much as humans aren’t either.” In fact, for years, I have had the practice of deliberately lying to my students. I would then tell them I was lying and remind them that they have an obligation to fact-check all of their sources. That includes their teachers, their textbooks, and now, their chatbots and other AI tools.
Of course, as with any new technology, there are also concerns about the potential downsides of ChatGPT. One of the most common concerns is that ChatGPT will enable student cheating. The thing that stops students from cheating is not a lack of access to tools, but rather a desire to learn. The initial knee-jerk reaction for many was to ban access on institutional computers and devices and to institute policies banning students from using it. But this response is from those who generally need help understanding, or refuse to see the potential of the technology. It is akin to banning students from using search engines. Can you imagine trying to tell a university student in this day and age they were not allowed to use Google? Services like ChatGPT enhance search capabilities. Yes, they can be misused, but so can a regular search engine. The question is not how do we stop students from using ChatGPT to cheat, but rather how do we improve our teaching and assessment in order to enable students to use new technologies to enhance their learning experience?

Lastly, if we are serious about preparing young people for the uncertain future, we need to be preparing them to use and understand all of the tools available to them. In this day and age, that means leaning into emerging technologies. I remember as a secondary school student, my chemistry teacher insisted that we all learn to do calculations on a slide rule. His argument is that we would not always have access to a calculator. It was an incredibly frustrating experience because all of us young people knew how difficult it was to get access to a slide rule. He was an excellent example of a teacher refusing to accept the changing times. This was at the cusp of the first dot com boom and the early days of the internet and yet we had a teacher, supposedly preparing us for the future, who refused to acknowledge the value of an already ubiquitous digital tool.

We should be teaching our students how to use tools like ChatGPT. We should encourage teachers to find creative ways to use the tool in their assignments and assessments. Instead of running from it in fear, we should be exploring new opportunities it creates for our students. We should be adding new learning objectives to our curriculum such as “prompt engineering,” which is “designing the optimal prompt given a generative model and a goal.”

I believe that universities should embrace ChatGPT as a learning tool, just like the calculator or smartphone. The potential benefits are simply too great to ignore. By using ChatGPT to enhance research, teaching, and learning, we can unlock new insights and discoveries, create personalized learning experiences, and augment human expertise. And by addressing concerns about cheating through innovative assessments, we can ensure that the integrity of higher education is maintained. It is time for universities to innovate and embrace new technology like ChatGPT to improve education and prepare our students for a future that is already here.

Author: Dr. Gaidi Faraj, Dean of Academics