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Alarmed by AI chatbots, universities revamping how they teach

Alarmed by his discovery, Aumann decided to transform essay writing for his courses this semester. He plans to require students to write first drafts in the classroom, using browsers that monitor and restrict computer activity. In later drafts, students have to explain each revision. Aumann, who may forgo essays in subsequent semesters, also plans to weave ChatGPT into lessons by asking students to evaluate the chatbot’s responses.

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“What’s happening in class is no longer going to be, ‘Here are some questions — let’s talk about it between us human beings,’” he said, but instead, “it’s like, ‘What also does this alien robot think?’”

Across the country, university professors like Aumann, department chairs, and administrators are starting to overhaul classrooms in response to ChatGPT, prompting a potentially huge shift in teaching and learning. Some professors are redesigning their courses entirely, making changes that include more oral exams, group work, and handwritten assessments in lieu of typed ones.

The moves are part of a real-time grappling with a new technological wave known as generative artificial intelligence. ChatGPT, which was released in November by the artificial intelligence lab OpenAI, is at the forefront of the shift. The chatbot generates eerily articulate and nuanced text in response to short prompts, with people using it to write love letters, poetry, fan fiction — and their schoolwork.

That has upended some middle and high schools, with teachers and administrators trying to discern whether students are using the chatbot to do their schoolwork. Some public school systems, including in New York City and Seattle, have since banned the tool on school Wi-Fi networks and devices to prevent cheating, although students can easily find workarounds to access ChatGPT.

In higher education, colleges and universities have been reluctant to ban the AI tool because administrators doubt the move would be effective, and they don’t want to infringe on academic freedom. That means the way people teach is changing instead.

“We try to institute general policies that certainly back up the faculty member’s authority to run a class,” instead of targeting specific methods of cheating, said Joe Glover, provost of the University of Florida. “This isn’t going to be the last innovation we have to deal with.”

That’s especially true as generative AI is in its early days. OpenAI is expected to soon release another tool, GPT-4, which is better at generating text than previous versions. Google has built LaMDA, a rival chatbot, and Microsoft is discussing a $10 billion investment in OpenAI. Silicon Valley startups, including Stability AI and Character.AI, are also working on generative AI tools.

An OpenAI spokesperson said the lab recognized its programs could be used to mislead people and was developing technology to help people identify text generated by ChatGPT.

At many universities, ChatGPT has now vaulted to the top of the agenda. Administrators are establishing task forces and hosting university-wide discussions to respond to the tool, with much of the guidance being to adapt to the technology.

At schools including George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, professors are phasing out take-home, open-book assignments — which became a dominant method of assessment in the pandemic but now seem vulnerable to chatbots. They are instead opting for in-class assignments, handwritten papers, group work, and oral exams.

Gone are prompts like “write five pages about this or that.” Some professors are instead crafting questions that they hope will be too clever for chatbots and asking students to write about their own lives and current events.

Universities are also aiming to educate students about the new AI tools. The University at Buffalo in New York and Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, said they planned to embed a discussion of AI tools into required courses that teach entering or freshman students about concepts such as academic integrity.

“We have to add a scenario about this, so students can see a concrete example,” said Kelly Ahuna, who directs the academic integrity office at the University at Buffalo. “We want to prevent things from happening instead of catch them when they happen.”

Other universities are trying to draw boundaries for AI. Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Vermont in Burlington are drafting revisions to their academic integrity policies so their plagiarism definitions include generative AI.

The misuse of AI tools will most likely not end, so some professors and universities said they planned to use detectors to root out that activity. The plagiarism detection service Turnitin said it would incorporate more features for identifying AI, including ChatGPT, this year.

More than 6,000 teachers from Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Rhode Island, and others have also signed up to use GPTZero, a program that promises to quickly detect AI-generated text, said Edward Tian, its creator and a senior at Princeton University.

Some students see value in embracing AI tools to learn. Lizzie Shackney, 27, a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school and design school, has started using ChatGPT to brainstorm for papers and debug coding problem sets.

“There are disciplines that want you to share and don’t want you to spin your wheels,” she said, describing her computer science and statistics classes. “The place where my brain is useful is understanding what the code means.”

But she has qualms. ChatGPT, Shackney said, sometimes incorrectly explains ideas and misquotes sources. The University of Pennsylvania also hasn’t instituted any regulations about the tool, so she doesn’t want to rely on it in case the school bans it or considers it to be cheating, she said.

Other students have no such scruples, sharing on forums such as Reddit that they have submitted assignments written and solved by ChatGPT — and sometimes done so for fellow students too. On TikTok, the hashtag #chatgpt has more than 578 million views, with people sharing videos of the tool writing papers and solving coding problems.

One video shows a student copying a multiple choice exam and pasting it into the tool with the caption saying: “I don’t know about y’all but ima just have Chat GPT take my finals. Have fun studying.”