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AI’s growing popularity in academic studies 

By Krishika Jethani

As the use of artificial intelligence (AI) writing and design tools grows within Canadian schools, experts are left debating the positives and negatives of this software usage. 

A popular AI tool used for generated writing is ChatGPT. Software company OpenAI released ChatGPT on Nov. 30, 2022 and it has since grown in popularity and intelligence, according to the company’s website.

When prompted with the question “What is ChatGPT?,” the AI tool automatically responds, “ChatGPT is a type of artificial intelligence model designed for natural language processing and understanding…GPT models are trained on vast amounts of text data from the internet and are capable of generating human-like text and responding to text inputs.” 

ChatGPT is not connected to the internet, according to the OpenAI website. Therefore, the information on the software has not been updated since 2021 and relies on the information initially downloaded to the platform, its trained skills on human demonstrations and preference comparisons to guide its answers. 

Jonathan Schaeffer, a professor in the department of computing science at the University of Alberta, said ChatGPT is more advanced than previous AI tools. 

“We’ve seen predecessors to ChatGPT come along and they’ve been okay, but I have to confess that when ChatGPT came out in [2022], I was blown away because it was and is far better than I ever expected it to be,” said Schaeffer.

“From an AI point of view, this represents an incredible advance. Yes, it has its problems, it’s not perfect, but know that there’s a lot of money going into this field and you will see these problems gradually be eliminated. We will have programs that can converse and interact with humans in ways that were unimaginable even two years ago.” 

A survey conducted this year by professional services network KPMG showed one in five Canadians used artificial intelligence tools to help them complete their work and school assignments. 52 per cent of students over 18 years-old have used AI to complete their work or pass exams. 90 per cent of students said AI helped them improve the quality of their work, while 70 per cent said their grades improved. 

Schaeffer added that students who have not understood a concept correctly during a lecture can use ChatGPT to get a further explanation. Instructors can also use it to add more examples to their lectures, he explained.

On the program, a simple prompt as to what the key principles of design are generates a list of simplified explanations that are easy to understand.

“I see ChatGPT as being a way that I can actually improve the quality of what I teach and students can use the same technology to help them improve and verify that they really do understand the concepts that are being taught,” Schaeffer said.

Chris Eliasmith, director of theoretical neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, believes there is  a “pessimistic” and “optimistic” answer to AI generators.

“[It] lets students focus on the interesting, more challenging abstract ideas that are typically part of a course curriculum,” said Eliasmith. “The pessimistic view is that AI is basically doing all the work for the students and they become lazy and don’t put any effort into understanding the course content.”

Furthermore, KPMG’s survey showed 70 per cent of Generation Z—those born from the late 1990s to the early 2000s—“sometimes” or  “always” claimed generated content as their own work. 

According to Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) Academic Integrity Office, the school’s policy on plagiarism is regularly under review to address “new realities.”

“Our current policy…defines plagiarism through a number of examples, one of which states that plagiarism is ‘claiming, submitting, or presenting the words, ideas, artistry, drawings, images, or data of another person, including information found on the Internet and unpublished materials, as if they are one’s own, without appropriate referencing,’” said Allyson Miller, director of the Academic Integrity Office in an email to The Eyeopener. “While ChatGPT is not ‘another person,’ our policy is clear that the examples are non-exhaustive.”

Adrian Ma, undergraduate program director and assistant professor at TMU’s School of Journalism, acknowledged others initially thought the use of ChatGPT as cheating but he realized there are more “exciting parts” to the software.

“In my mind it really inspired me to look at education from the perspective of how could ChatGPT be used to enhance the experience to perhaps make things a bit easier and more accessible for students?” said Ma. “If we’re trying to teach them how to come up with a 2000 word paper without necessarily having them need to apply a lot of critical thinking to with it, I think it opens up a lot of exciting possibilities for learning.”

Instead of focusing on the negative, Eliasmith said students should see AI tools as an advancement, something that will only get better.

“When [the calculator] first showed up, people were very concerned that kids wouldn’t learn any math anymore because the calculator would be doing everything for them,” he added. “Of course, it turned out to not be true…it’s definitely an interesting time of trying to figure out exactly that kind of thing.”

Golam Rabbani, assistant professor in the department of creative industries at TMU experienced an increased usage of ChatGPT in both undergraduate and graduate level classes. 

Although the tools might encourage plagiarism for writing-intensive courses, in a discipline like creative industries, including many hands-on experiences, students need different kinds of ideas, he explained.

“ChatGPT produces ideas and the students decide whether that idea is relevant or not given the context of an assignment and they can later deny that idea and bring something new…if you think positively, incorporating ChatGPT into courses is actually making [students] more efficient in their work,” said Rabbani.

ChatGPT’s growing population is hard to predict but individuals are hopeful for the positive outcome it may leave on the education system. 

“It makes the whole cognitive practices that students are supposed to have in an academic level…by itself,” said Rabbani. “So students need to go beyond that and do something new to have another level of academic excellence .” 

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