Chatting Out Assignments

· Technology,Education


Have you heard about ChatGPT? Short for generative pre-trained transformer, ChatGPT is a text-writing bot that can produce tweets, poems, music, and yes, even essays. It has also been labelled a threat to student learning.

The fear is that, in the future, it will become difficult to distinguish between ChatGPT-generated text and student writing. Right now, it's not hard to do this—that is, unless your student’s writing is stiff in prose yet strong in grammatical prowess. But technology is driven by progress, so it won’t be long before the challenge becomes real.

Still, there are reasons not to single out ChatGPT as a menace to learning. For example, when Wikipedia came out in the early 2000s, the fear was that it would dethrone research. Searching Wikipedia for a given topic would supply students with all the knowledge they needed. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Wikipedia serves as a launching point for research. It’s useful for anyone who is new to a subject. But it doesn’t offer the amount of information—nor an analysis of that information—necessary for a satisfactory

Moreover, who among us does not use online tools to augment our writing? In addition to web-based dictionaries and thesauruses, Word processors already have spelling and grammar checks built in. We don't ask students not to use them.

Finally, let's not overlook the fact that Wikipedia and ChatGPT are great levellers. They are both free.

I’m not saying ChatGPT poses no risk, just that there is no need to panic. Warning students of serious academic penalties should they use ChatGPT is, as I see it, the wrong approach. No consequence has ever been successful in ending cheating and plagiarism; students can always find new ways of gaming the system.

But my point is not to give up on accountability. Rather, it is possible to create rigorous assignments that intentionally involve ChatGPT. Instructors can help students navigate what ChatGPT can and cannot do when it comes to contributing to their learning. And this helps students learn in all areas of their lives, not just in the classroom.

How can we do this? One way is to make learning personal. When I teach ethics to seminary students, I often ask them to write an analysis paper on a practical ethical issue in ministry that includes both scholarly research and an account of how this issue factors into their own experience.

This is something ChatGPT cannot do on its own. Proof: I asked it to “Write an essay on suffering taking into account the personal suffering of Aimee Patterson.” What I got was a very repetitive, though highly complimentary, essay. Following a bland definition of suffering, ChatGPT wrote:

Aimee was born with a rare genetic disorder that caused her to suffer from chronic pain and mobility issues. Despite these challenges, Aimee remained determined to live a full and meaningful life. . . . Through her
perseverance and determination, Aimee graduated from college with a degree in education, and went on to become a successful and respected teacher. She also
became an advocate for individuals with disabilities, working to raise awareness and support for those who face similar challenges.

Little of this is true. Yes, I suffer physically, but from incurable brain cancer. Yes, I have a full and meaningful life, but many people—many suffering people—could say that. Yes, I graduated from university and teach, but I don’t have a degree in education. And while I care for them, I’m not known as a public advocate for persons with disabilities.

This shows me that students can use ChatGPT for part of the assignment (describing what suffering is). But it cannot navigate the intersection between objective facts and personal meaning. Like Wikipedia serves as a starting place for research, students need to consider ChatGPT as a starting place for their paper.

What about helping students learn what ChatGPT can and cannot do for less personal assignments?

I think back to my undergraduate years. In one course, each student was given a topic. The assignment was to create a Wikipedia page based on that topic. We were graded on how thorough the research was, how well the page was resourced, and how many links it had to other adjacent Wikipedia topic pages.

Similarly, there are ways students can use ChatGPT as a learning tool. Consider this assignment: Require that students ask ChatGPT to write an essay on an assigned topic. For instance, “Compare and contrast deontological, consequentialist, and virtue ethics from a Christian perspective.” Students are then responsible to analyze the text, first by verifying its content and then by responding to a number of questions you supply: What did ChatGPT get right? What did it get wrong? What information is missing? What changes would I make to the text? What additions are required for a better paper? And so on.

By the way, it turns out ChatGPT already knows all of this. I typed in, “What kind of assignments should professors assign students to encourage them to use ChatGPT without compromising their education?” It offered me a list of possibilities and concluded:

Overall, the key is to use ChatGPT as a tool to augment and support the learning process, rather than as a substitute for critical thinking and originality. By assigning tasks that require students to use the tool in a way that requires them to think creatively and evaluate information critically, professors can encourage students to use ChatGPT in a way that enhances their education.

Thanks, ChatGPT!

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