ChatGPT is gaining the attention of Minnesota educators. Here’s why

Teachers and professors said although ChatGPT can aid cheating and plagiarism, they are aiming to use it as a learning tool in the classroom.

A ChatGPT prompt
A ChatGPT prompt is shown on a device near a public school in Brooklyn, New York on Jan. 5. Educators are beginning to discuss use of the artificial intelligence in the classroom: "If they allowed a computer to do their thinking for them, isn't that giving up their individuality and their humanity?”
AP Photo/Peter Morgan

The artificial intelligence bot ChatGPT is capable of generating ideas, answering questions and producing complete essays in just seconds — a skill set that it’s easy to imagine students would be interested in using for school.

Minnesota educators have begun considering how this technology could impact learning in schools and universities, with concerns around plagiarism and cheating rising from within academia. Some schools around the country have already issued bans or blocked the site.

The free online tool works by using millions of pages of writing from all over the internet to understand and respond to inquiries from users.

Timothy R. Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said ChatGPT will likely change the way students are tested and exams are written, to make them more difficult to feed into AI programs.

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Johnson said he knows of only knows of one instance when a student used ChatGPT to complete an assignment. He said it was a high school student taking a University of Minnesota class, and the instructor realized it quickly because writing generated by the program is still relatively easy to spot.

ChatGPT’s writing often relies on overused cliches, is unnecessarily wordy, has few citations and makes generalizations, he said.

“When I took a look at the paper, it took me about 10 seconds to realize,” Johnson said.

Educators identify one possible solution

Johnson said this encouraged him to begin experimenting with the technology to learn more about its patterns and limitations.

He said he and other academics are realizing one way to prevent students from using ChatGPT is to create assignments based on current events.

The older the topic, the more writing on the internet ChatGPT can grab from. But using more recent subjects taken from the news makes it harder for the software to generate writing, he said.

“If you were to ask it about the Dobbs decision, that initial day, there would have not been enough on the web to put together a paper,” Johnson said. “But if you waited just one week, I will imagine there would have been enough on the web for it to put together a paper comparing Dobbs and Roe v. Wade.”

Some educators are trying to incorporate ChatGPT into classroom discussions or use it as a learning tool.

Counter software is already available to help educators identify when ChatGPT may have been used. OpenAI, the company that made ChatGPT, released an AI classifier tool which can tell when AI may have used to write text. Other similar detection programs like GPTZero are also available.

OpenAI did not respond to MPR News’ request for comment for this story.

Regardless, Johnson said he’s started including text in the syllabi for his courses that says if a student is caught using the program, they’ll fail his class.

Could ChatGPT be a learning tool?

Some educators are trying to incorporate ChatGPT into classroom discussions or use it as a learning tool.

Kathryn Tabke, an English teacher at Shakopee High School in the Health Sciences Academy, said she hasn’t encountered students turning in work produced by ChatGPT yet.

But when she heard students in her AP class talking about the program, she decided to take a closer look at the technology with the class with the hope of helping students realize some of its pitfalls.

They began by asking ChatGPT to generate an essay on “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tabke said her students quickly realized the writing wasn’t very articulate and was even incorrect in some places. She said the ChatGPT essay referenced a romance between two characters in the novel, Jay Gatsby and Jordan Baker, that never took place.

“On the surface, it looks shiny and nice, but it took my students not even two minutes to discover why it's not good writing,” Tabke said. “Then we got into this really wonderful conversation about why one would give up their autonomy or their own creativity and their own thought, and what does that mean for them. If they allowed a computer to do their thinking for them, isn't that giving up their individuality and their humanity?”

Students relying on ChatGPT to produce writing might also be a sign that educators need to better address how reading and writing is taught, Tabke said.

“What's happening to a student that they now desperately need to use something like ChatGPT to write a paper? Is it to hide that they don't have literacy skills? Is it that life is stressful and they just forgot?” Tabke said. “Those are constantly evolving conversations at the school.”

ChatGPT use could be considered academic dishonesty

At the University of Minnesota, language about ChatGPT may eventually be incorporated into official policies on academic dishonesty, said Ken Leopold, a chemistry professor and chair of the Student Academic Integrity Committee.

“The university already has policies around academic dishonesty and I think misuse of ChatGPT would easily fall under existing policy,” Leopold said. “It’s possible that as we get this sorted out, there could end up being some mention of ChatGPT in official policy.”

A 10-page document discussing ChatGPT best practices and impacts recently began circulating among faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota.

The document recommends instructors review their assessment formats and incorporate ChatGPT into a lesson. It says plagiarism checker tools can be used as an “imperfect last resort.”

The document also looks at equity and accessibility when it comes to ChatGPT and AI.

“Regardless of the larger goals for AI and equity, the on-the-ground reality is that AI tools are not yet themselves accessible or unbiased. Whether and how we revise our assessments must take our students’ realities in this moment into account,” the document reads.

While there is concern, Leopold said much of the conversation he’s been involved in has been about how to use ChatGPT in a constructive way. There seems to be an understanding that AI programs are not going to go away, Leopold said.

“While there is certainly some angst about academic integrity, there is also a sense of opportunity in that this technology, if used appropriately, could enhance education,” he said. “People are recognizing that in a few years, students will be using artificial intelligence in their jobs and it is in their interest for us to give them the experience of using it wisely and effectively.”

For Tabke, there has always been a tension between education and technology, and ChatGPT is another example of it.

“As long as we've had schools, you see people trying to find their way through or around things,” Tabke said. “It might get more difficult to spot and we have to be more diligent on it, but at the same time, maybe the bigger conversation is about how we encourage students to really want to think for themselves.”

Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: So if you're in school and you've got a pile of assignments to get through, you might be tempted to try an AI app to help you out, artificial intelligence. A free online tool called ChatGPT can write an essay in just seconds, which is creating some concern, as you might imagine, among teachers and professors. Our reporter Abbey Machtig has more details. Well, this is your first time with us, Abbey. Welcome.

ABBEY MACHTIG: It is. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Now, you are a good person to talk about this because you are a college student right now, right?

ABBEY MACHTIG: Yes, I'm finishing up my senior year at the University of Minnesota. And I just want to put it out there that I haven't personally used ChatGPT for any assignments, but it's definitely creating some buzz around campus and around high school since it came out last November.

CATHY WURZER: Good that your professors know that you've not used it. That's good. So let's say, you get an assignment to write an essay, which I'm sure you have a number of those kinds of assignments. If you were to use ChatGPT, how would you use it?

ABBEY MACHTIG: So ChatGPT is free to access online. So you can just search for it in any browser, and you'll be taken to the website. You do need to make an account with your email, but then you're good to go.

So if I wanted to write something on abortion law in the US, for example, I could just type in the chat box, "Write me a five paragraph essay on the Roe V Wade case." And in less than a minute, I'd have a complete essay there for me.

CATHY WURZER: Wow! And just in a few seconds?

ABBEY MACHTIG: Yeah. I've played around with it myself. I've asked it to summarize a TV show, and it's pretty impressive.

CATHY WURZER: Is it pretty accurate?

ABBEY MACHTIG: Yeah. That particular-- I asked it to summarize Game of Thrones, and which I just finished watching. And it was pretty impressive and accurate.

CATHY WURZER: How does it work?

ABBEY MACHTIG: ChatGPT has access to millions of pages of texts and data that help generate responses. Things like news reports and academic articles. It was built upon previous models of AI, but humans also helped train it and help to refine the responses.

So when you ask ChatGPT a question or ask it to produce an essay, it sorts through all of this information and pulls in the relevant stuff and produces something that sounds like a human wrote it.

CATHY WURZER: Well, it's a problem obviously for, as I say, teachers and professors because they're trying to assess a student's writing ability and research skills. And I'm curious what they're saying about this.

ABBEY MACHTIG: I talked with Professor Timothy R Johnson from the University of Minnesota. And he said, ChatGPT writing is still relatively easy to spot because it tends to be wordy, and makes lots of generalizations, and uses some cliches. The writing itself also probably isn't up to the college level professors are expecting, but it is a concern.

I also talked with a teacher at Shakopee High School who had her students ask ChatGPT to write a literary analysis essay on the novel The Great Gatsby. And again, same thing. The students realized pretty quickly that the writing wasn't great and there were actually a few factual inaccuracies. The teacher said the ChatGPT essay talked about a romance between Jay Gatsby and Jordan Baker, which if you've read the book, you'll know that doesn't happen.

CATHY WURZER: No, it doesn't. So if a teacher or a professor cannot tell it's AI, what can they do?

ABBEY MACHTIG: There are counter softwares out there that can help identify when writing might have been generated by AI or ChatGPT.

CATHY WURZER: Are teacher's finding any positive uses for this tech?

ABBEY MACHTIG: Yes. Some teachers and professors are aiming to use AI and ChatGPT for good or as a tool. Some educators say the technology isn't going to go away and education needs to evolve.

So some teachers are having students, for example, try to improve writing from ChatGPT in class. And educators are also realizing that students might end up using AI in their future jobs. So this is a good time to introduce them to the idea of it and to identify some of its potential pitfalls.

CATHY WURZER: I can hear some of our listeners, though, Abbey, saying, Wait a minute! This is like you're cheating. I'm thinking schools have to issue some campus-wide policy around using the software. What are you hearing?

ABBEY MACHTIG: So some schools across the country have already banned it or tried to block it. At the University of Minnesota, I talked with the chair of the student academic integrity committee and he told me ChatGPT could end up in policy about academic dishonesty. But there's also a discussion about whether using ChatGPT would even constitute this because depending on how you use it, it can be viewed as a tool or a learning resource.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting to be determined. Good reporting. Thank you, Abbey.

ABBEY MACHTIG: Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Abbey Machtig.

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