You’ve got an essay due in 12 hours, you’ve put it off until the last minute, now here you are with 20 readings to do, a blank page and an inescapable feeling of dread.
You could drink a litre of coffee, skim through dozens of papers that read like instruction manuals and pound at your keyboard like your life depends on it, or….
You could punch a few prompts into ChatGPT and have your essay done in less than a minute.
The choice is yours.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the world — post-secondary schools and beyond — has been changed by ChatGPT. AI researcher, professor and Western’s chief digital information officer Mark Daley says that the program is “one of the most exciting creative tools ever developed by humanity.”
Daley expects in the next five years everyone will have an AI co-pilot like ChatGPT, for work and for daily life. In the context of academia, he expects professors will be weary of the technology, but believes — like with calculators and typewriters before — they will eventually come around.
“Some [professors] are going to react to radical new technologies with caution, which is fair, but I think in relatively short order, it'll be understood that this is just a new technology,” Daley says. “What will overcome that caution is experience using the technology and seeing what it can do for themselves and their students.”
Daley has been a professor at Western for over 18 years, with artificial intelligence being his primary research focus. He has long studied language models like ChatGPT and says he was pleasantly surprised by how quickly a model of this sophistication was released. OpenAI, the company that developed ChatGPT, has created other natural language models, however, none of them compare to this latest release in functionality or popularity.
While the post-secondary institutions around the world are hitting the panic button, trying to figure out how to prevent students from using ChatGPT to cheat, Daley is encouraging his students to use the software.
In fact, Daley doesn’t even consider using the AI bot to write essays and answer homework problems cheating.
“This is not only not cheating, it's something I'd encourage my students to jump in, and start using this thing and figure out how to use it. Because this is going to be with you for the rest of your life.”
Western president Alan Shepard sees things differently.
“You're just cheating yourself, cheating the system and you're also cheating yourself of the struggle of like having to learn how to grapple with ideas, how to synthesize them, how to express them, how to be persuasive, all those critical things that you want to learn in university,” Shepard told the Gazette in an interview.
Shepard expects the software will ultimately change how professors assign work in courses where writing is the main form of assessment. He admits that he’s scared of its implications, nervously joking that eventually the computers won’t need us anymore.
While Shepard and Daley don’t see eye to eye on this, they find common ground in the belief that the software is far from a sure-fire shortcut to the Dean’s List.
“What I hear from people who have [used ChatGPT] is that it's good, It's not great. It can get you a C plus or a B minus but it's not going to be a sterling piece of work,” Shepard says.
“If you feed these large language models, sort of boring ideas, they give you back boring prose,” Daley says.
At least one Western student, however, seemed to have had a different experience. This student, who the Gazette is not identifying as they fear academic repercussions, relied heavily on ChatGPT to write one of his final exams.
He got a 93.
The student and his classmates spent the days before the exam venting in the class group chat, admitting to each other that none of them were ready for the exam. A couple of months ago, they might have been left to the wolves, but the December launch of ChatGPT turned out to be their saving grace.
“I was talking to a lot of people in the class, and a lot of people were saying they're going to use it. I [thought to myself] ‘I have a really low chance of anything negative happening here.’”
Ethically, the student said he was comfortable using the software for two reasons: the exam was open book and, having scoured the exam outline and academic policy for the course, found no mention of AI pilots or ChatGPT being prohibited.
“Even if I got accused of cheating, I have a very good argument that it was not banned,” he said.
He said he didn’t quite copy and paste the answers provided to him by ChatGPT but definitely used it as a crutch for understanding key concepts in the course and articulating them into coherent answers. Admittedly, his biggest concern was that his classmates, plugging in similar, if not identical, prompts would submit answers that were too close to his.
He shuffled a sentence here and there, changed a few words, and pulled off an A without raising any alarm bells.
The most popular plagiarism-detection software used by Western professors, TurnItIn, has developed a bot that it claims can identify text written by AI co-pilots like ChatGPT. The company says on their website: “we have technology that can detect AI-assisted writing and AI writing generated by tools such as ChatGPT.”
This is one avenue that Western and other universities could take –– catch the “cheaters” and push students away from using the technology. Many Western courses already use TurnItIn to check for plagiarism, making this a simple and, if you take the company at its word, an effective way of identifying AI generated text.
But as Daley says, the genie is out of the bottle, this technology is not going anywhere. He wonders why, if students are going to be using this technology for the rest of their lives, its use would be discouraged in an academic setting.
“People are going to adopt it, and we live in a free market economy so people who adopt it are going to be way more productive, and they're going to out compete those who don't,” Daley explains. “We're all going to have to adopt it anyway.”
He believes in order to train his students to be successful in their careers and in their lives, he must expose them to every available resource that can enable success, especially ChatGPT.
I asked Daley, theoretically, if a student used ChatGPT to write their final exams last semester, would he consider that cheating. The scenario I gave him was, more or less, the same story told by the student who used the software on his final exam.
Daley paused, took a few seconds to think, and said no.
Third-year software engineering student Brayden Thompson sees ChatGPT as a double edged sword. It has the potential to unlock academic potential but also the power to corrupt certain evaluations.
He has personally used the software as a study tool, asking the bot questions when he wanted clarification on a concept in class, not dissimilar to a digital TA that's at your beck and call. He also understands why the technology can be problematic to evaluations.
“I think it is an issue, but I think it's also something that professors are gonna have to adapt to,” he says.
Thompson says he feels that the value of the software is filling gaps in knowledge rather than replacing critical or creative thinking. He acknowledges that the software is not perfect and can still make mistakes, but says it's important for students to grasp the basics of it as a study tool.
“I think every student should have an understanding of what it is and how to use it, because if something's missing in [your] notes, or something's missing in the solutions, or there's a gap in your knowledge that you're not able to fill, it's really easy way to figure it out.”
The effectiveness of ChatGPT as an academic tool is clear, but the grey area of its implications on grades remains foggy. Similar to its adoption of remote proctoring services like Proctortrack during the pandemic, Western will always prioritize maintaining the integrity of its degree.
As Shepard explained, the university can't afford to lose the weight of the Western crest imprinted on each diploma.
“We're always worried about academic integrity because for those who have academic integrity, and want their degree to matter, and not to be given away by people who are dishonest.”
Opinions are split and the stakes are high, but one thing is for certain. As Daley told me with a smile on his face:
“This is a really exciting time to be alive.”