Higher Ed + ChatGPT = ?

Since its public launch in December 2022, the Artificial Intelligence language model ChatGPT, created by the American company OpenAI, generated enthusiastic comments about its capabilities, but also some concerns about its social and ethical impact. If you are, not unlike us, unsure of what to do with this new tool, it’s probably because while many projections about its potential impact on society were made, we are still learning when, why, and how to use it. This article attempts to answer these questions by focusing on the possible applications of AI within higher education programs. As ChatGPT is going to stay in our lives, we might as well grab the bull by the horns!

🧐 What is ChatGPT exactly?

ChatGPT is a type of generative AI that creates text. You can think of it as a super smart chatbot. Technically speaking, it’s a large language model (LLM), “a type of neural network that learns skills — including generating prose, conducting conversations and writing computer code — by analyzing vast amounts of text from across the internet.”

What can we use it for?

ChatGPT provides a wide range of language-based services such as natural language processing, text generation, and conversation. If you submit a prompt or a question to the bot, it’s capable of answering by analyzing and synthesizing texts that are mainly from Wikipedia and Reddit. Its purpose is to assist humans in various fields, including education.

How does it work?

It’s powered by its neural network, “a mathematical system modeled on the human brain that learns skills by finding statistical patterns in data. It consists of layers of artificial neurons: the first layer receives the input data (large quantities of training data), and the last layer outputs the results (new, original material that has similar characteristics). Even the experts who create neural networks don’t always understand what happens in between.”

🚑 Why are some people concerned?

We can regroup most concerns raised about ChatGPT into three categories: economic, safety, and ethical issues. Some worry ChatGPT could replace people that write for a living (e.g. authors, copywriters, professors, researchers), depriving them of their jobs. A study by Cornell University concluded that nearly 80% of professional roles will see at least 10% of their tasks directly transformed by AI tomorrow. And 50% of the task of the remaining 20% would be impacted.

What about safety issues?

Other commentators raised concerns about issues such as algorithmic bias, privacy, and the responsible use of AI. First, ChatGPT relies on sources written by humans, hence it could generate inaccurate or offensive responses. Second, the system could be breached, giving access to login info and the conversations people have had with the bot. Third, ChatGPT could be used to generate, for example, phishing emails, or fake news that look like they’ve been written by a human.

Sure, all these issues already exist, but as ChatGPT is capable of mass content production, it could aggravate them.

How are ChatGPT’s ethical issues different from existing AI’s?

Most ethical concerns are similar and we won’t get into them because there are so many. However, American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky has been especially critical of ChatGPT because it simulates human conversations, propagating “the banality of evil”.

In short, he argues that humans are capable of moral and critical thinking: skills that protect us from evil and tell us when we shouldn’t follow orders… but that bots will never gain, as they can only follow orders, hence allowing the spread of the banality of evil.

🏋️‍♂️ What are the positives?

There are more nuanced ways to approach every issue. On the unemployment side, the broader picture tells us existing roles have adapted to new technologies rather than fully disappeared (we’ll dive deeper into the question of skills in a couple of months, stay tuned). On the safety side, both the bot’s technicians and state legislators are working on features and laws to protect us from potential AI-related abuses.

What about ethics?

In a sense, the solution to fight the risk of ChatGPT spreading the banality of evil is to rely on our moral and critical thinking, to remain skeptical when using it. Even if it generates seemingly natural texts, it also gives irrelevant, nonsensical, or factually incorrect answers (researchers call them “hallucinations”).

📚 Professors and students can find ChatGPT helpful.

ChatGPT endorsers that are also scholars want to put the tool at the service of education by learning how to master it. For example, Ethan Mollick, who teaches innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania, included ChatGPT in his assignments and asked his students to share the prompts they used to direct ChatGPT’s answers towards the desired direction. The objective: co-learn how GPT works with his students so both parties make progress on how to best use it.

Can a future Chat GPT really improve higher education?

According to French philosopher and Professor Michel Serres, digital technology is an opportunity for the education sector. In his Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials (2012), he suggests that traditional education models may not be adequate for preparing young people for a rapidly changing and uncertain future and concludes that we need to embrace a new model of learning, creativity, and collaboration that takes advantage of the opportunities offered by digital technology.

How so?

Traditional teaching structures assume that knowledge is fixed or static, meaning the professor is the only source of information (bottom-down lessons). But today and thanks to new technologies, e.g. ChatGPT, knowledge is constantly evolving and accessible to everyone. For Pr. Serres, the best way for professors to adapt is to accept that their students (“Thumbelinas”) have direct access to information by placing themselves in between students and information.

What would it look like exactly?

Michel Serres provides several examples of how digital technology can be used to enhance these aspects of human development, including:

  1. Collaborative learning where students work together on projects, share information, and learn from each other through online platforms, social media, or other digital tools.
  2. Personalized learning where professors can tailor programs to individual students’ needs, interests, and learning styles through adaptive learning software, online assessments, and personalized feedback.
  3. Open education where students can access free or low-cost online courses, educational resources, and learning communities through open educational resources (OERs), massive open online courses (MOOCs), and other online platforms.
  4. Creative expression where students use new digital tools for creative expression such as digital art, music, and video production.
  5. Global collaboration between people from different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives.

It’s all about using ChatGPT responsibly.

Yes. Serres encourages the Thumbelina generation to embrace the opportunities and challenges of the digital age, to be creative, curious, and engaged in shaping the future.

🧠 Food for thought

This time, we ask you to participate in a debate that’s also kind of a game. A paragraph of this article was written by Chat GPT, can you guess which one? And do you think it was fair of us to let you believe a human wrote it in the first place? How does it make you feel?

We hope this reading helped you sharpen your opinion on AI and look forward to your feedback!

📢 We need you

Why do we need to hear from you?
  • From October, 14th to May 31th, young people (15-29yo) worldwide are invited to take part in Youth Talks, a massive collective intelligence consultation.
  • The Higher Education for Good Foundation, which is launching this initiative, is expecting tens of thousands of respondents, hopefully including you!
Why should you participate?
  • The results of the consultation will help the Foundation imagine new higher education models to grow future generations into empowered individuals able to overcome the challenges of their times.
  • Thanks to an online platform and offline activities, you can share your ideas, concerns, dreams, and expectations for the future.
Any other reason?
  • Plenty! First, we believe that asking yourself such questions will help you better understand who you are and what you want for the future.
  • Second, participating in the consultation means your answers will co-construct the educational policies of tomorrow: they will nourish a white paper that will be read by the OECD, the European Commission, and other major youth organizations.
  • Third, thanks to the online open data platform we will publish thanks to your answers, it’s the occasion to show the rest of the world what young people want.
  • Finally, it helps plant trees as for every 10 people responding to Youth Talks, we will finance the planting of 1 tree to help restore forests, create habitat for biodiversity, and make a positive social impact around the world.

Credit : Photo de Emiliano Vittoriosi sur Unsplash.