Three creative ways to use ChatGPT in class

New AI tools such as ChatGPT increase educators’ capabilities, freeing us from fact-gathering to focus on more sophisticated problems and higher-level understanding, writes Esteve Almirall

Esteve Almirall's avatar
24 Feb 2023
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Not a day goes by without a new article on ChatGPT being published. There are warnings about the dangers of this invention, alongside advice on when to use it and when not to use it. Forceful policies are being enacted, such as a ban its use in state schools in New York and Seattle. The International Conference on Machine Learning has also banned its use, and it is not the only academic organisation to do so. To what extent these bans can be enforced is another discussion, but they illustrate the level of concern about AI’s use in education.

This is not new. In fact, such concern is characteristic of every disruptive innovation that challenges the status quo. In the early days of automobiles, there had to be a man walking in front of each vehicle with a red flag to alert people to the vehicle’s presence, which, of course, restricted their speed. The invention of the telephone also raised alarm. Philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle lamented that it would spell the end of direct human contact. John Stuart Mill heartily agreed with worries about the technological society developing in the 19th century, expressing fears that “success in so crowded a field depends not upon what a person is, but upon what he seems”. Pulitzer prizewinning journalist Nicholas Carr wrote a popular article in The Atlantic in 2008 titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”.

It is easy to conclude that ChatGPT is in good company.

Where’s the real value?

What ChatGPT brings to education is not really new. For decades we have witnessed the evolution of mechanical work translated into software. Early work relied on logarithms and manual algorithms for operations, such as square roots, but this is now done by calculators.

What used to be the meat and potatoes of Calculus I, derivates, integrals and differential equations, is elegantly solved by applications such as Mathematica, while matrix algebra is done with Python. Being the champion at doing by-hand matrix dot multiplication is no longer a value. Python, Julia and others can do this much better and enjoy the process much more than we do.

All these developments enable us to shift our focus from the mechanics of the operations and focus on the big picture, addressing more sophisticated problems and a higher level of understanding and mastery.

ChatGPT and its successors hold the promise of doing something similar for language. Producing an essay that is a simple collection of facts, summarising some existing knowledge, or describing theories or frameworks won’t have value in the future. Instead, these tasks will be better done by AI.

Therefore, our educational strategies must change and adapt to a world where our ability to manipulate concepts and elaborate on language will augment in the same way that our abilities to manipulate equations, matrices and data have changed in recent decades.

Alongside the cacophony of fears about our fast-moving future, some voices aim to adapt to these new realities and align higher education with them. After all, as the Borg said, “Resistance is futile”, and there is nothing more absurd than fighting the inevitable.

Applying ChatGPT in the classroom

So here are three creative ways in which we can apply ChatGPT and the like in the classroom:

1. Comparing yourself to AI

A useful exercise to get students familiar with the strengths and limitations of ChatGPT, while also reflecting on and improving their own writing, is to ask them to compare their own essay with one generated by the AI tool on the same topic. Ask students to compare the flow, the reasoning or argument, the validity and the broader application of the arguments along with their punch and clarity.

Why is this important? It allows classes to transcend the mechanics and focus on the vital aspects of the text, both in form and content. Lecturers might argue they were already able to do this – and it’s true – but with limited time, this offers a helpful vehicle to unpick the topics and writing. Comparing students’ text with one automatically generated encourages them to ask: “What am I missing? Why didn’t I take this angle? Are these the most important elements in this multifactor problem?”

2. Find the intruder

A second popular exercise involves distributing a mixed collection of human and machine essays to groups and asking them to identify which essays were produced automatically and to explain how they know.

3. Let it be your assistant

A different element of AI integration is data collection and exploration. Soon we will be using these tools integrated into Microsoft Office software and search engines such as Google and Bing to answer specific questions and to succinctly capture facts, theories and frameworks.

Facilitating knowledge and understanding of theories allows us to shift attention from simply understanding to their practical use and application for specific cases. This moves students on from knowing the theory towards proficiency in the use of their knowledge.

Embrace AI’s possibilities

Just as tools such as Mathematica and Python freed us from spending countless hours practising manual algorithms and allow us to focus on creative problem-solving, these new language tools will do the same for developing new concepts and arguments.

This new world demands that we shift focus and, once again, raise the bar for our teaching. For an educator, there has never been a better time than the one before us. All these tools enable us to expand and augment our capabilities, freeing us from the boring stuff while enabling us to focus on what really matters.

Esteve Almirall is an associate professor in the department of operations, innovation and data sciences at Esade Business School.

This advice was originally published on the Esade Do Better blog, “Three creative ways to use ChatGPT in class”.

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