May 15 2023

Student Attitudes Toward AI in the Class

Researchers recently published an extensive survey of almost 6,000 students across academic institution in Sweden. The results are not surprising, but they do give a snapshot of where we are with the recent introduction of large language model AIs.

Most students, 56%, reported that they use Chat GPT in their studies, and 35% regularly. More than half do not know if their school has guidelines on AI use in their classwork, and 62% believe that using a chatbot during an exam is cheating (so 38% do not think that). What this means is that most students are using AI for their classwork, but they don’t know what the rules are and are unclear on what would constitute cheating.  Also, almost half of students think that using AI makes them more efficient learners, and many commented that they feel it has improved their own language and thinking skills.

So – is the use of AI in education a bane or a boon? Of course, asking students is only one window into this question. Educators have concerns about AI creating a lazy student, that can serve up good-enough answers to get by. There are also concerns about outright cheating, although that has to be carefully defined. Some teachers don’t know how to react when students turn in essays that appear to have been written by a chat bot. But many also think there is tremendous potential is using AI as an educational tool.

Clearly the availability of the latest generation of large language model AIs is a disruptive technology. Schools are now scrambling to deal with it, but I think they have no choice. Students are moving fast, and if schools don’t keep up they will miss an opportunity and fail to mitigate the potential downsides. What is clear is that AI has the potential to significantly change education. Simplistic solutions like just banning the use of AI is not going to work.

First let’s talk about the potential upside to using AI in education. Chat GPT and similar apps are a tool, which can be used to gather information. I think one of the most important things that schools can and should be teaching students is how to survive in a world awash in information – good, bad, deceptive, manipulative, useful, and dangerous. Schools cannot pretend that the internet does not exist. They need to teach students how to use it, how to leverage the internet to find information, and how to properly assess that information. This means, learning how to evaluate sources, how to crosscheck multiple sources, and how to recognize red flags of propaganda and misinformation. If the introduction of Chat GPT is disruptive to education, it’s partly because educators are already behind the curve in terms of this mission.

A good, if simplified, analogy is the introduction of calculators and math instruction. At first there were the same concerns – the lazy student syndrome and easy cheating. But education adapted. Instead of teaching students how to use a slide rule, they were taught how to properly use a calculator. You can evaluate students in the classroom where they cannot use calculators. Or give them tests that account for the use of calculators, such as showing their work, or demonstrating conceptual understanding.

AI like Chat GPT has more far ranging consequences that calculators, but the concept is the same. Class time should be used to both teach and assess student’s ability to think and their understanding of the material. Homework assignments can be structured so that the output of an AI would not be sufficient. Or, teachers can just assume the students will use AI (just like they should assume they will use Google) and design assignments with that assumption.

In other words, teach students how to properly use AI as an educational tool and source of information. You could, for example, ask students to design a prompt for Chat GPT that delivers some type of result, where students are judged by the quality of their prompt and the usefulness of the answer. They could also be asked to give a specific prompt, then independently verify the facts in the answer with references derived from another source. They can even be specifically tasked with finding errors in the response, or critiquing the response. Or you can give assignments where Chat GPT wont’ be able to give the answer, because it asks for high-level analysis in a narrow question, perhaps specifically referencing source material that Chat GPT was likely not trained on or is not available online, or by requiring examples from class discussion or from a student’s personal experience.

Yet another way to look at this, there is two basic tasks students can be given. One type of task is outcome oriented – get me the answer to this question, I don’t care how you do it. The second is process oriented – show me that you understand how this process works or that you have mastered this concept. Both approaches can work with AI.

In short, educators should lean into AI and chatbots, not fight against them. That’s a losing battle. I think the entire question of AI and education becomes easier when education is properly oriented. While learning facts is still important, it should not be the focus of education. We all have all the facts at our fingertips now. Memorizing facts is not worthless but it is less useful than it used to be. It should be considered a rudimentary element of education, not the final goal.

The ultimate goal is the three pillars I frequently refer to – literacy (scientific, language, historical, whatever), critical thinking skills, and media savvy. If that’s the true goal, having a working understanding of a topic, understanding logic and how to think, and being able to access and evaluate sources of information, then AI is not a threat. It’s a useful tool. But to be clear, the latest AIs are about more than just finding facts. They can construct answers in coherent text that mimics understanding. That is why educators have to get a little creative in designing tasks, as I outlined above. I’m sure creative educators will come up with lots more solutions. But they have to actively work this problem. They can’t ignore it, or make it go away.

Disruptions may be scary and exhausting, but they are typically opportunities in disguise. My hope is that this latest disruption will be an opportunity for the education industry to reevaluate its methods and goals, to align more with teaching critical thinking, literacy, and media savvy.

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