Update, 5:30 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from UTEP on the use of ChatGPT.
ChatGPT has been in the headlines for months. At the University of Texas at El Paso, professors and students are not sure if it is a tool or a threat – or both.
Since its launch in November, the artificial intelligence program has generated concerns over its ability to produce essays, research papers and other written material that appear natural sounding based on someone’s prompts and how it could affect higher education. Instructors appreciate ChatGPT’s abilities, but are leery of how students could misuse the program’s work and submit it as their own.
Those who have tried the free instrument praise its ability to prepare straight-forward responses that are error free in terms of spelling, grammar and punctuation. However, they also noted that the writings often lack higher order thinking and sometimes provided factually incorrect information.
Greg Beam, associate professor of practice in the Department of Communication, said he plans to use it in his introduction to the Art of the Motion Picture course this spring He called ChatGPT’s responses to his prompts “mechanically immaculate,” but bland in word choice, and lacking context and insights.
A UTEP instructor for more than five years, Beam characterized the program as an academic tool that could be abused so he and other educators will need to explain and demonstrate its proper use. He plans to let students use it to augment course instruction and brainstorm ideas. Additionally, he may assign the program’s writings to students as a critiquing exercise.
“Rather than allowing it to be this forbidden fruit that’s hanging out there that they’re told not to take a bite of, I’m going to say here’s how to use it responsibly because I think it could actually be a very useful resource,” Beam said.
Andrew Fleck, associate professor of English and president of the university’s Faculty Senate, is more cautious. He does not plan to use ChatGPT in his spring classes. Instead, he has asked the Faculty Senate’s academic policy committee to review the university’s statement of academic integrity, which should be in every course syllabus, to determine if it needs to be updated regarding students’ reliance on artificial intelligence to produce their work.
UTEP officials did not respond to a request for comment on any steps the university planned to take regarding ChatGPT.
Fleck, a higher education faculty member for 30 years, recalled how colleagues raised similar concerns as internet search engines became popular in the 1990s. He said some students used technology to cheat, while faculty used it to catch offenders. Since ChatGPT started, other programs have popped up with claims that they can detect AI-generated writings.
“I’ll be curious how it kind of plays itself out in the next year or so,” Fleck said. “It certainly does pose certain kinds of risks, but I guess the question is how effective will ChatGPT be eventually in replicating human thought and human communication.”
UTEP Provost John Wiebe said advances in the accessibility of artificial intelligence (AI) have triggered faculty conversations at higher education institutions around the world to include UTEP. He said that after consultations with Faculty Senate leaders about the opportunities and challenges that faculty and students face because of ChatGPT, several faculty committees will work on the topic.
“AI is a tool that can be used to enhance learning, but can also be used in ways that violate UTEP’s Academic Dishonesty policy,” Wiebe said. “We will work to help faculty understand the issues and how their colleagues in other places are responding.”
Deki Peltshog, a sophomore computer science major, said she learned about the new artificial intelligence program through friends and social media, and used it during the winter break. ChatGPT amazed and amused her with its ability to respond to her requests for a song about cats and a poem about eating pizza at night.
The Bhutan native also tested the program’s grasp of languages. ChatGPT has a multilingual vocabulary of more than a billion words. She asked it to translate a simple question into her native language of Dzongkha. She said ChatGPT apologized after she informed it that it gave the wrong answer.
Peltshog, whose spring courses are in math, coding and engineering, said she does not plan to use ChatGPT this semester because she does not trust its grasp of facts. However, she sees its potential as a more direct search engine after it becomes more reliable and updates its content beyond 2021.
“It could become a personalized tutor,” she said. “It would make studying more efficient.”
While some educators see the new program as a threat to academic honesty, others point out that it is just the latest method in a line that includes ghostwriters, research paper mills, exam banks and professional test takers. Critics also point out that such programs could limit a student’s growth as a critical thinker and problem solver.
Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the San Francisco-based company that developed ChatGPT, seemed to concur in a Dec. 10, 2022, tweet. He said that the company’s new program is “good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness. It’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now. It’s a preview in progress.”
José de Piérola, professor of creative writing at UTEP and director of the department’s graduate studies program, said that colleagues might be giving ChatGPT too much credit.
De Piérola, a computer programmer and consultant for 20 years before he started on a literary path, said there are 20 to 25 artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT. While the new program is superior, it mostly produces generic information about the subject. His point was that you cannot replace human skills when creativity is needed.
The human element was key to Jess Stahl, vice president of data science and analytics at the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Redmond, Washington. She participated in a Dec. 19 Zoom conversation about ChatGPT that attracted more than 250 participants from around the world.
Stahl, whose research focuses on initiatives that will enable academic institutions to benefit from innovations in technology, data science and artificial intelligence, said instructors should humanize their relationships with students and not try to compete with AI in terms of content. She also advised institutions to build their social and professional networks, and other resources that students could not access elsewhere.
Stahl said that faculty must rethink what they do professionally in and out of the classroom and decide what they can do better than the most advanced technology.
“It won’t be imparting facts, and it won’t be presenting curriculum, and it won’t be evaluating learning, and it won’t be preventing cheating, and all those things,” Stahl said. “What it is going to be is how human and important and valuable can you make your relationships with the learners so that you are doing that skill better than an advanced technology like ChatGPT that can mimic a very fake relationship.”
As a personal aside, de Piérola encouraged students who will see ChatGPT as an academic shortcut to not lose sight of the true goal of a college education and that is to become the best version of yourself.
“That’s why you go to a university,” he said. “If you do that right, then you will get good grades, and a degree, but if you don’t do those things, the rest really doesn’t matter. You’ll just be the same person you were before you went to the university and that would be sad in most cases.”
Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.