News, On Campus, Academics

Institute for the Liberal Arts Hosts Forum About ChatGPT in Higher Education

Despite its controversial presence in the academic world, ChatGPT will not radically transform the higher education system, according to Paula Mathieu, an associate English professor at Boston College.

“In what ways is ChatGPT a new problem?” Mathieu said. “What are the new challenges we’re facing that we’ve never had before? And in what ways is this a form of a problem we’ve seen 100 times?”

In a forum hosted by the Institute for the Liberal Arts on Thursday, BC faculty members discussed the implications, limitations, and benefits of using ChatGPT in the classroom.

“I think rather than only banning or fearing ChatGPT, thinking about what happens when we include it in the conversation,” Mathieu said. “What happens when we get our students becoming critical readers and writers of ChatGPT?”

ChatGPT—or Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer—launched as an artificial intelligence chatbot in November 2022. The website immediately sparked controversy about its potential role in plagiarism and academic dishonesty, according to Brian Smith, associate dean of research at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development. 

“We essentially frame machines to look at probability,” Smith said. “It’s paying attention to every word that comes in in a way that no machine model has done before … and not only does it have this sophisticated attention, it’s been trained incredibly on enormous amounts of data.”

According to Smith, ChatGPT follows a strict set of language rules to create text based on users’ prompts. ChatGPT’s syntax, however, does not account for natural human speech patterns, thus limiting the text it can produce, Smith said. 

“So, the language model … is [like] ‘I’ll take any kind of text you have, and I have this set of rules that structure the language in a way, and I’m always going to give you an answer back that looks reasonably good until you start pushing it,’” Smith said. “All these models will eventually break at some point.”

Nirmal Trivedi, the assistant director for teaching, learning, and technology at the Center for Teaching Excellence, said using ChatGPT prevents students from utilizing critical thinking in their writing and coursework.

“You can pass [class], but can you think critically?” Trivedi said. “Can we think about the logic, the context, the external schema in our minds that makes things more tangible, more personal, more acute?”

As a result of the ongoing societal conversation about ChatGPT, Mathieu said she is rethinking the way she interacts with her students, as well as the work she assigns them.

“Are we going to have a relationship that is about policing them and being worried about the texts they produce or creating a process where we really work with them as writers and human beings every step of the way?” Mathieu said.

According to Mathieu, teachers and professors need to adjust to the growing prevalence of programs like ChatGPT by assigning work that focuses less on the final product and more on the experience of writing itself.

“We try to teach writing as a tool for living,” Mathieu said. “And if it really is a tool for helping students manage their lives, manage things interpersonally, understand, ask questions of the world, then it might be a little less likely that they’re gonna want to turn to an AI all the time.”

According to Trivedi, ChatGPT may also have implications beyond the classroom, specifically in perpetuating inequalities between socioeconomic classes.

“Those who can afford it are going to be able to use it, those who can’t afford it won’t be able to use it,” Trivedi said. “And this is something that I’ve heard a lot and read about, and it’s very true that nobody really cares about cheating until poor people try to cheat.”

Although ChatGPT presents many challenges, Smith does not believe it will have a drastic impact on education in the long run. 

“I haven’t seen it happen—that some particular piece of technology will change everything about the way that we do education,” Smith said. “So I think there’s a lot of overblown takes on both sides, but we’re going to find middle ground.”

Correction (2/6/23, 5:17 p.m.): This article has been corrected to state that Nirmal Trivedi is the assistant director for teaching, learning, and technology at the Center for Teaching Excellence.

February 4, 2023