ChatGPT is a powerful language model developed by OpenAI that is capable of generating human-like text.
Well, that’s how ChatGPT describes itself.
The viral AI chatbot software, launched by Elon Musk’s company at the end of 2022, can write anything you want — true or false. Give it a prompt, like “write an article for Vice about ChatGPT”, and it’ll do it. Click “regenerate response” and it’ll make you a different version. Ask him to write the article in a light-hearted or academic tone and you’ll have it in seconds. When I asked him for a VICE-appropriate story idea, he spurted out: The Dark Underworld of Underground Lizard Fighting. And to be honest, that sounds pretty good.
While chatbot technology has existed in various forms for years, ChatGPT is the most advanced of its kind by far and, unsurprisingly, its popularity is growing fast. Especially among students.
Sally Brandon, a communications lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University, applied bot detection technology to 54 essays she marked over the summer and found 10 had “significant, detectable bot assistance”. She’d been scanning assessments for signs of AI for five years and this term’s rate of use was the highest to date.
Already, in the US, some schools have already “banned” the URL to mitigate fears of negative effects on students. ChatGPT has quickly become synonymous with “cheating.”
Using ChatGPT to write an essay on a prescribed text, instead of reading it yourself, was like basing your assignment on just the abstract and conclusion of your source material. It’ll get you so far, but it probably won’t get you a high grade.
In Australia, Brandon’s results sparked concerns over academic integrity and how fair student assessment can be maintained while this technology exists.
But computer science experts, and even the universities themselves, say this technology is only the beginning of a new era of learning.
“I think it’s an increase in human capability moment that we’re looking at right now,” co-director at Deakin University’s Center for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, Phillip Dawson, told VICE.
“I think a student that graduates in five years’ time is going to be able to do so much more than what we are capable of doing now because they’ll be using these sorts of tools.”
Dawson described ChatGPT as a writing tool and compared students using it to help them write essays to a pilot learning how to fly a modern plane.
“Yeah, you need to be able to use all the instruments and you need to know how all those work, but you also need to be able to do it when all those instruments fail. You still need to be able to land that plane.”
ChatGPT was developed on a data set larger than any of its competitors. It works by observing patterns in texts from around the world, including books, articles and web pages, and learning which words are most likely to appear together.
But it’s not a database: it creates new prose because it’s simply looking for learned characteristics. It learns only from what it’s taught, so it can still make mistakes, have gaps in its knowledge and have inbuilt bias.
“What we’re trying to do is tell students ‘we know these tools exist, but when you use them, here are the ways you can acknowledge you’ve used those tools’.”
Dr Cheryl Pope, a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s School of Computer and Mathematical Sciences, said ChatGPT was great for writing a first draft, but the need for editing and fact-checking by humans was unlikely to be replaced anytime soon.
“There’s still a need to understand the topic so you can criticize the answer it generates,” Pope told VICE.
“You still need to go through and check it, verify it, punch it up for tone, all those sorts of things that you still expect a person to do … but it gives you a good starting point.”
Pope said using ChatGPT to write an essay on a prescribed text, instead of reading it yourself, was like basing your assignment on just the abstract and conclusion of your source material. It’ll get you so far, but it probably won’t get you a high grade.
But once you start to think of a chatbot as a tool, rather than a replacement, its possibilities become very exciting.
“It’s not a matter of banning it, it’s there, it exists, we’re going to be using it in the future, but it’s going to be an efficiency tool,” Pope said.
Chatbot software also has the potential to make tertiary education more accessible to people who may struggle with traditional assessment styles, or have to balance other commitments alongside school, as well as giving students 24/7 access to study help.
“Getting help requires a lot of social capital. You have to approach someone and that can be uncomfortable. Having someone where you can ask whatever question, [with] no concern about someone else seeing it, whether it’s a silly question, I think there’s a lot of scope there,” Pope said.
On the flip side, this technology could usher in a higher standard, the same way expectations differ for a two-hour written exam vs. an essay you have two months to write.
“If you’ve got AI as a tutor, we might expect you to go deeper,” Pope said.
Deakin Uni’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor, Liz Johnson, told VICE they’d fielded calls for a return to traditional exam hall testing in light of the recent emergence of ChatGPT. But she said they would instead be embracing the technology in a measured way.
“It is the University’s view that traditional pen and paper exams do not represent the type of contexts and work that graduates will work in. Indeed, many students may be required to use AI or similar technologies in their future careers,” Johnson said.
“As an innovative and proactive educator, our focus is to instead support our students to develop awareness, knowledge and skill in the ethical and responsible use of these tools so they graduate as digitally fluent citizens and employees.”
Dawson said universities have been aware of students using these tools for a while — because professionals in their industries have been using them for a while, too. Now, in the same way the education sector had to adapt to the World Wide Web, teachers need to figure out how to incorporate chatbots into learning.
“What we’re trying to do is tell students ‘we know these tools exist, but when you use them, here are the ways you can acknowledge you’ve used those tools,'” Dawson said.
And at the end of the day, people will always find a way to cheat — using whatever technology is available to them.
We’ve been cheating since the very first forms of examination were invented in China in 600 AD, and we continue to find ways to get away with it.
All unis can do is keep up.
Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Senior Reporter for VICE Australia. You can follow her on Instagram here, or on Twitter here.