Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, offers his take on the capabilities of the new language software that has quickly entered the educational arena.
ChatGPT, a new written language software tool powered by artificial intelligence that has gained visibility, is considered by some as the new enfant terrible of disruptive technology.
ChatGPT is reported to produce text that appears to have been written by humans. It can produce essays, solve calculus problems, and provide software code following text prompts, among others. The software poses challenges for educators, software development managers, and those working in any other industry that relies on work that requires human creativity and expertise.
In higher education, many fear that students will use the tool to complete assignments. This has made some universities begin to revise their curricula in an effort to ensure that students will find it more difficult to use the technology to replace their own work.
The ChatGPT phenomenon prompted Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Miami, to encourage faculty members at the University to explore ChatGPT and similar technologies to find ways that it could enhance their existing curriculum.
“As an AI text generation tool, ChatGPT reflects an evolving and sophisticated technology that users describe as quite good and that will likely continue to develop,” Duerk shared with the faculty.
Duerk said that he does not believe that ChatGPT produced content is necessarily a threat to higher education.
“I think it can be used, for example, as a study aid,” he said. Duerk used the software to find a description of DNA methylation and was pleased that the software delivered a concise description of the process at an undergraduate level. “In the case I played with, I could see how it could break through the logjam in the understanding of a topic rather than a student being referred to a website,” he added.
In his note to faculty members, Duerk encouraged them to try it for themselves. ChatGPT “will give you a better sense of its capabilities and allow you to see firsthand how it might be used by you or your students in and outside of the classroom,” he stated.
“We [as educators] are trying to assess if the student has learned something and can provide us with a piece of material that demonstrates the student’s level of understanding,” Duerk pointed out. “If a student gives us a ChatGPT generated answer as their own work, they are cheating themselves and mistaking a grade with knowledge.”
Disruptive technology—innovation that significantly alters the way consumers and others operate—has always, at first, been perceived as a threat, news reports indicate. Advances such as calculators, CliffsNotes, and spellcheck fell into these categories. In their own times, the automobile, electrical service, and television were also disruptive technologies.
Duerk recalled that in his junior year in high school he did his chemistry homework using a slide rule to help execute assignments. By the next year, as a senior, he was using a calculator to assist with his physics work. At the time, the use of the calculator was questioned by many.
“Now everyone would say that the calculator is a tool to get to the answer quickly,” he said. “Calculators and computers have not slowed down discoveries in math or science, and they have not replaced them. They have made it easier and/or faster.”
The provost can foresee a humanities class where a teacher may ask a student to write a paper on a given topic, and then have ChatGPT offer a paper on the same topic.
“It would be interesting to see the similarities and differences between the two,” he said. “It would be interesting to see what technology can currently do and what it cannot—how the styles differ and what aspects of the topic are discussed and what aspects are identified as most important by each.”
Duerk warns that ChatGPT is not foolproof. The information it provides is only as accurate as the data that is put into its system and the underlying algorithm’s ability to assemble those pieces correctly. His own trials with the algorithm, in some cases, generated solid essays with fundamental logic or factual errors.
“The computer has allowed us to simulate and do things we could not do before. But if you have an error in the logic of your program, the program will give you the wrong answer,” he said.
In order to help faculty members explore and understand artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT, several seminars will be offered to them in the next few weeks, Duerk noted.
“I think this offers us a healthy opportunity, not to avoid ChatGPT,” he said, “but rather to explore how we can comprehensively support our students to master a topic with the available tools.”