June 8, 2023

The Impact of ChatGPT on Higher Education

Manjinder Kainth, PhD

From students using it to write essays to educators using it create more personalised learning plans. ChatGPT is here to stay and it is going to make a huge impact.

Rarely does a technology come along that promises to revolutionise the way we live, work, and learn. Rarer still is that technology adopted with such alacrity. Released 30 November, OpenAI’s ChatGPT gained 1 million users in just 5 days. To put that into perspective, it took Netflix 3 ½ years, Facebook 10 months, Spotify 5 months, and Instagram 2 ½ months.

So popular is OpenAI’s ChatGPT, it cannot always meet demand.

“We're experiencing exceptionally high demand. Please hang tight as we work on scaling our systems.”

Open AI experiencing load issues.

From coding to essay-writing, its range of uses is impressive.

Let’s look at the possible implications in higher education.

What is ChatGPT?

In essence, it’s a chat bot – a very advanced one.

GPT stands for Generative Pre-Trained Transformer and its large language model uses statistics to work out the most probabilistic next word based on billions of parameters when training with a large data set. It mimics language rather than thinking. You might ask it to write an essay on love in the comedies of William Shakespeare, but it has no idea who William Shakespeare is, and it has never been in love!

How to use ChatGPT

In many ways, it could not be simpler, which is why it’s proving so popular. It was designed to be used as a chat bot, so users just have to ask questions or make requests.

“Write me an essay on the theme of love in William Shakespeare.”

“Tell me about the importance of love in the style of William Shakespeare.”

ChatGPT’s appeal is plain to see when compared to, let’s say, Google search. Google finds web pages with relevant information. ChatGPT writes the answer for you (without all the ads!)

Short-term implications in education

With technology this impressive, plagiarism is an obvious concern, but don’t worry - we’ll be able to detect ChatGPT content very soon. OpenAI is working on a digital watermark. University of Texas computer science professor and guest researcher at OpenAI Scott Aaronson, told TechCrunch that the company is “studying hiding cryptographic signals, called watermarks, in ChatGPT results, so that they’ll be more easily identifiable by companies like Turnitin [who detect online plagiarism].”

And there’s also GPT-2 Output Detector Demo and GPTZero.

Let’s not forget, educators know their students. They’re not daft. A professor suddenly receives a flawless piece of prose from someone who was previously suffering from writer’s block. Gut instinct tells them something is afoot. As one lecturer observed, "I think the chat writes better than 95% of my students could ever."

Another wrote, in a Guardian discussion thread on the topic: “As a lecturer I gave it last year’s exam question on a third year module. It was more fluent and readable than the majority of answers I got, but the level of detail and analysis would have only secured it a 2.2 at best, probably a 3rd.”

Poppy Wood of inews used ChatGPT for GCSE questions and got a professional examiner to mark it. It didn’t get perfect marks!

One way to deter plagiarism is to follow students’ work from early outlines and first drafts to completion. It’s worth remembering that ChatGPT literally makes things up because it's designed to write the next most probabilistic word. Moreover, it can’t do maths.

AI coding

ChatGPT can code at speed, with some degree of accuracy, but there are caveats.

The homepage warns of its “limitations” ⚠️:

“May occasionally generate incorrect information”

ChatGPT limitations

OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman has been very clear in numerous interviews, advising against using ChatGPT for important tasks.

Furthermore, concerned about its accuracy or dependability, public coding platform Stack Overflow no longer accepts ChatGPT code, after being inundated with faulty code.

Long-term benefits of ChatGPT in education

All that said, ChatGPT will only get more reliable and more sophisticated, and the possibilities are tantalising.

Generating ideas is one of its strengths, and so it will be increasingly used by educators for course creation, writing syllabuses, lectures, assignments, and grading rubric, along with carrying out much of the tedious admin, to boot. Producing practice questions or example essays for “peer”-like feedback will take hours rather than days and weeks. Consider, for example, pre-trained transformer models in marketing, which have been around for a while now. They can magically conjure up a perfectly reasonable starting point. Users find they save time as it’s often easier to edit them than to write a first draft from scratch.

Effect of AI on higher education

GPT-like tools are already making their mark in the world of work, so along with harnessing their enormous potential, we also need to teach students how to use them skilfully, with questioning scepticism and discernment. We want students to exploit ChatGPT’s powers; we want them to be empowered, but not overly reliant.

This entails exploring with them, in an open, honest way, what ChatGPT can do well and, just as importantly, what it can’t do. If, for instance, it’s being used for the writing process, teachers should outline those stages where it’s most useful. It can help with generating content or plugging the gaps in early brainstorming, but its written content, though impressively fluent and convincing, can be rather generic or vague. Educators and students need to explore together ChatGPT’s limitations and how best to work with or around them.

Artificial intelligence works best alongside human intelligence. The quality of what it produces is highly dependent on the quality of the prompts. The maxim “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Students need to learn not to accept its first responses, but rather follow up with modified questions and commands to ensure quality. There’s an art to asking the right questions or asking for clarification.

The smallest tweaks to the wording can make a huge difference. Students should also question the veracity of what ChatGPT produces.

If students are using it to fix code, context is important. They need to learn how to frame explanations of what exactly they are trying to achieve.

Working in groups on all of this, with teacher input and interventions, will help students develop essential 21st century AI skills. AI won’t necessarily replace humans so much as AI-empowered humans will replace those who are yet to catch on.

Final thoughts

It’s early days and the tech is in its infancy, but these are exciting times, for students and teachers alike. Early adopters who embrace AI in the spirit of play, discovery, and experimentation will reap the rewards. ChatGPT and its ilk will certainly free up time for other cognitive elements of academia.

This is one of the many reasons we devised Graide: we wanted to harness artificial intelligence to help speed up the marking process in higher education, allowing educators to deliver assignments, get immediate insights into student performance, and provide tailored feedback in a flash.

Find out more here: How it works | Graide

Further reading

Is artificial intelligence the future of education? (graide.co.uk)

ChatGPT: A Threat To Higher Education? (forbes.com)

I Asked ChatGPT to Write an Insider Story. It Was Alarmingly Convincing (businessinsider.com)

Academic experts offer advice on ChatGPT (insidehighered.com)

ChatGPT: A Threat To Higher Education? (forbes.com)

AI in education: ChatGPT is just the beginning (the-decoder.com)

How Should Universities Respond to the Challenges of ChatGPT? (al-fanarmedia.org)

Professors Caught Students Cheating on College Essays With ChatGPT (businessinsider.com)

Australian universities to return to ‘pen and paper’ exams after students caught using AI to write essays | Australian universities | The Guardian

Lecturers urged to review assessments in UK amid concerns over new AI tool | Artificial intelligence (AI) | The Guardian

Manjinder Kainth, PhD
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I’ve been intricately involved in teaching for many years. I have over 6 years of private tutoring experience, taught in higher education, and most recently worked on designing and delivering crash courses for a high school.