So, you want to use ChatGPT in the classroom this semester?

Ben Swift outlines some methods and things to think about if you’re unsure about ChatGPT but would like to start incorporating it in your classes right away

Ben Swift's avatar
26 Jan 2023
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Using ChatGPT in your university classes and lectures right now

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ChatGPT and the rise of AI writers: how should higher education respond?
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Image showing a human and AI writing together

As I scrolled through my social media feeds over the Christmas break, I read several “What do AI tools such as ChatGPT mean for the future of higher education?” pieces – I’m sure you saw them as well. Then, last weekend, I was at a barbecue dinner with a colleague, and our chat turned to “how’s your class shaping up for the coming semester?” My colleague was aware of ChatGPT and isn’t worried about it destroying the fabric of higher education or anything like that, but they were a bit unsure about if and how they could make use of it in their class.

So, here are a few things to think about if you’re in that position. I’m going to use ChatGPT as an example (because it’s the hot thing right now), but these ideas could be applied to any AI content generation tool, whether for generating text, images, music, voiceover or video.

First, if your class requires deliverable written work – essays, for example, but also lab reports, process blogs, compulsory forum posts and more – then some of your students are going to use ChatGPT to write their submissions. It’s inevitable, and although the New York schools district is trying to bury its head in the sand and ban ChatGPT, this is both wrong-headed and too difficult to enforce in practice.

So, as you look over your course outline and assessment schedule, the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether you care if your students use ChatGPT. It’s a question that goes to the heart of why we set deliverables at all, and includes reasons such as legal compliance, but for most educators it is also about deeply held ideals about education as the pursuit of knowledge and truth, as well as what it means to give a good (or bad) grade.

Maybe you don’t care, or at least you don’t care enough to rejig your whole class to “defend” against students using ChatGPT to submit work that they don’t understand. I think that’s an OK position to take for now, although I’d encourage you to watch closely as other educators try things (and no doubt fail in interesting and unforseen ways).

We will learn from each others’ experiences in how best to incorporate these tools in our classrooms. But in the meantime you should at least think hard on: “Why do I set that particular essay as the final assessment item in this course, and what would it mean if a student used ChatGPT to write it?”

Second, there are already some good ideas floating around on how to use ChatGPT productively in your teaching. And they aren’t just useful if you’re designing a new course on “applied AI language models”; there are ways to incorporate it into an existing course as well. The Centre for Learning and Teaching at Washington University has already got a helpful ChatGPT and AI composition tools page up on their website. And there is a bunch of folks experimenting with ChatGPT-designed syllabi.

I think that people like Yoav Goldberg are on the right track when they say: “I think a ‘write an essay with the help of chatGPT and discuss the process and the resulting prose’ can be a super-effective assignment…in a humanities-centric, critical-ai program.”

If you’re looking for concrete opportunities to incorporate ChatGPT into your class this coming semester, look through your course outline for every time you ask your students to produce a written artefact in response to a question or prompt you give them. First, plug that prompt into ChatGPT and see what results you get. Try to get it to give you better (and worse) answers by tweaking the prompt. In what situations does it give a good and interesting answer, and in what situations is it wrong in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways?

Then think: can I change the exercise so the student asks that question of ChatGPT and then has to critically reflect on the output they receive? This process could be scaffolded by first doing it in a facilitated class discussion setting and then later as an assessment task (and perhaps the students need to create their own rubric or criteria on which the output of the AI model should be evaluated). It’s OK to start small; there’s no need to rip up the whole course outline and replace everything with a ChatGPT exercise just yet.

There are heaps of variations on this basic idea, but the general idea is this: wherever in your current class you ask your students to write something, that’s an opportunity to get the student to co-write (or evaluate) that same something with ChatGPT. On a superficial level, such “AI tool use” is the sort of process that knowledge workers will increasingly be incorporating into our daily workflows in the future. At a deeper level, it’s an opportunity to reflect on where these tools work well and where they’re useless.

One final point I made to my colleague in the context of incorporating ChatGPT into this semester’s class is about availability. During the current initial research preview ChatGPT is free to use, although there are some hints that a paid “pro” plan is coming soon. But OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT, haven’t released any information about how long the free plan will be available. Meta’s latest large language model survived only three days online, although it does look like ChatGPT is going to have a longer shelf life than that.

ChatGPT running costs are estimated at $3 million per month, and OpenAI is a private company, so they can’t be counted on to keep it running free forever as a public good. If it’s eventually priced similarly to GPT-3 (the AI language model on which it’s based) then it’ll be fairly cheap – probably only a few cents to write an article as long as this one – but you’re still left with an equity issue unless you’re willing to pay for a subscription for all your students. Even if your institution is willing, these tools don’t yet have an (easy) way to sign up a whole class, ensure that students’ activity stays under a given budget and send one easy bill. I’m sure that will come in time, and AI companies may well be willing to offer partnerships and scholarships to educational institutions doing this sort of thing – but be prepared for a small panic if ChatGPT’s free trial gets turned off 24 hours before an assessment deadline.

I’m not trying to be the techno-optimist who downplays the potential downsides of ChatGPT in higher education. These tools may well blow up society, and higher education is (clearly) going to be affected if that happens. And I certainly don’t want to heap yet greater burdens on our already overworked classroom educators – if you don’t have the headspace to try this right now, then that’s OK, too. My main point is that if you’re careful you can start using AI writers in the classroom today – your students will be anyway, and this way you get to go on that journey with them.

Ben Swift is educational experiences lead and associate director (education) at the ANU School of Cybernetics

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