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Complex Reactions to ChatGPT at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

From executives to professors, staff at UNL see enormous innovative potential, complications for their own work and the possibility of negative long-term effects as they contemplate the inevitable roles of AI chatbots.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln logo.
(TNS) — Like many of the emerging technologies of the 21st century, the new artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT — and its growing list of competitors — has cast looming shadows on the future of education.

Despite concerns at colleges, universities and school districts across the country, some officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln say the technology could serve as a bridge to new frontiers in higher education.

ChatGPT utilizes a technique known as machine learning to predict and generate language from a broad set of data. Developed by OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research and development firm, the program was released in November and has taken the internet and higher education by storm due to its ability to, among other things, mimic human speech and generate passable writing and code from a prompt.

UNL's Center for Transformative Teaching, which formed in 2019 to "collaborate with educators across departments and programs to promote evidence-based, inclusive, innovative and effective teaching for all learners," has taken a leading role in helping professors determine ways to implement the new technology.

Nate Pindell, one of CTT's instructional design and technology specialists, said he's been surprised by the university's response to ChatGPT, from executive offices to the classroom level.

"I was kind of worried we were going to stay away from it and say, 'This is evil,' but the university's response has been, 'This is a tool; let's talk about the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, and not rush into things,'" said Pindell, who has a background in science, holding master's degrees in geoscience, physics and education of physical sciences.

Pindell is focused on the positive applications of the technology, including generating essays for students to edit, assisting in lesson-planning for professors, and even providing impersonal feedback on students' work.

He said the majority of the opposition he's encountered has come from professors who haven't given much time to working with the program, and while the university's embrace of the technology has still been cautious, changes to higher education are inevitable.

"ChatGPT is now challenging some of these standard normative practices, these traditions that faculty might have been a little too comfortable with," he said. "We live in a world where it's very easy to be afraid of what we don't know."

Skepticism about bringing the chatbot into the classroom hasn't just been limited to instructors, however.

Justin Morrow is a senior majoring in computer engineering at the UNL Raikes School. Initially, the chatbot was little more than an amusing, if effective, tool for providing world-building for his Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and producing hilarious responses to odd prompts to share with his friends.

Since then, however, Morrow has grown more wary about its potential consequences.

"I think ChatGPT is an amazing tool. ... The fact that we have something like it is a tribute to people's ability to just be amazing," Morrow said. "The problem is, I have a very big feeling it's going to have an extremely negative effect on the next generation."

Although he agreed with Pindell that education has largely failed to adapt in the face of rapid technological innovation, and while he sees no issue in applying it to industry, Morrow worries that AI technology will de-incentivize learning, especially with regards to programming.

"It's kind of like the idea of why you learn to do math by hand before you get to use the calculator," Morrow said. "It's so you still have the fundamentals."

That potential issue hasn't gone unnoticed by the university. June Griffin, the associate dean of undergraduate education for the College of Arts and Sciences and an English professor, has been another key player in UNL's exploration into AI-assisted instruction. She hosted a meeting on the subject with about 20 other members of the university, including members from the CTT, over winter break.

Much of Griffin's focus has been less on the "what" of the learning experience and more on the "why." In that way, she hopes to counteract the potential educational ills of tools such as ChatGPT that might render some assignments useless.

"We have a responsibility to help students understand why the activities and assignments we give them are worth their time and attention and how it helps them learn, so that it becomes less a question of, 'Is this busy work?'" Griffin said. "As a longtime teacher myself, sometimes the why ... seems self-evident, but I don't think it always is, so we do better to help connect the dots between this work and this learning."

In light of many universities beginning to employ AI detection software to catch and punish students for using ChatGPT to complete their assignments, Griffin said how the university addresses cheating is a central piece to the puzzle.

"I think, in some sense, we do ourselves as committed teachers a disservice if we focus on trying to catch people; that just really distorts the relationship in the classroom," Griffin said. "It's not that cheating won't happen — it will — but I think if we focus on chasing down the tools to catch cheating, we diminish our ability to teach."

Instead, Griffin advocated for professors to rethink what work they assign students to target things that AI struggles with. In writing assignments, for example, she sees weaknesses in current AI's ability to recognize the audience it is addressing, as well as the context in which information is being conveyed.

She also said that learning to use AI for education is a shared experience for everyone involved, pointing to how professors are already creating assignments using ChatGPT.

"We are figuring this out ... saying honestly to students, 'How is this helpful to you?'" Griffin said. "We will do our best work with this new tool if we work together on figuring out, 'How does this work? How does this help us? How does it kind of interfere with our learning?'"

While many might see ChatGPT as the easy way out, Pindell sees the end goal of learning how to properly use it as one of the most important skills students can take away from their college experience.

"We're living in the knowledge age now; with all these resources, all this information, it's not rote memorization like it used to be. ... It's trying to give students the ability to understand the power that they have, that they need to understand what they're doing," Pindell said.

He even foresees the potential for future experts to rise in the art of crafting AI queries, carving out a career of their own in the process, all while learning a skill with value in any profession.

"Maybe people find really amazing ways to do it, to ask questions or use it in ways that we've never thought possible," he said. "And how are they going to do that? They're going to be people who ask the most unique questions, and that's what we should be teaching now."

©2023 Lincoln Journal Star, Neb. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.