Written by: Muskaan Marwaha and Jasper White

The evolution of learning has taken a pivotal turn with the introduction of artificial tools to assist students in their academic endeavours. The rise of ChatGPT has challenged the balance between critical thinking skills and plagiarism. However, could this be seen as a missed opportunity to effectively utilise technology in the education system or is this just another lazy tool for students to escape the grind?

Critical thought is the cornerstone of academic assessment, and using ChatGPT for such arguments is not assessing the critical thinking skills of a student. ChatGPT can however be used to generate ideas and outlines for essays whilst also checking grammar. The generation of ideas and essay prompts is one of the main points of contention. Should it be used as a springboard to other research or not used at all?

Currently, the University’s policy is: ‘AI-generated text or responses, cannot be submitted as students’ own work…  Where there is a suspicion that AI has been used in a submitted assessment an academic misconduct flag will be added, for example reducing the assessment mark to zero.’ Clearly taking a strong stance against the use of ChatGPT or any other equivalent program, proposing a zero tolerance approach.

But what exactly is ChatGPT? In essence, it is a Google-like chatbot that takes its information from existing literature, providing conversational answers to questions or prompts. By its very nature, it cannot create new arguments or pieces of literature because all of its data is based on existing information up to September 2021. Meaning that any arguments presented by ChatGPT are plagiarism in a university essay due to the fact that ChatGPT does not reference when providing answers.

Image: Aaron Galway

The use of ChatGPT does have its upsides. When used as a spellcheck, it can check for spelling, grammar and the clarity of your sentence. Not only in the context of your essay, but within the wider context of the topic area. Differing from existing programs like Grammarly, ChatGPT can draw on other texts to provide suggestions that are most effective in the topic area. Helping to assist with essay outline or structure as well.  

Idea and essay prompt generation is the most contentious area yet, it can be used as a springboard to other forms of research, ones from a perspective that you may not have considered before. This area is a question for the University policy. Should it be okay to use ChatGPT as a starting-point to access differing perspectives that enable more research? But that difference between enabling research and providing the answers on a plate, is the point of contention.

Not only can ChatGPT be used as a starting-point for  researching other ideas, it provides a central hub to focus your brainstorming. Having a quick and reliable place to brainstorm new ideas is an incredibly useful tool for students. Instead of scrambling through different readings and Google tabs to organise your idea generation, ChatGPT provides a place where you can see all of these differing ideas. This in turn acts as a time saving tool, allowing you to have all your ideas in one place at the click of a button. The nature of it being a chatbot shows the progression of thought and how your ideas shift and evolve with more research. Which, although sounds absurd, is useful and initial assumptions or arguments can be utilised to form counter arguments in your essay.

It is clearly an evolving technology that is continuing to improve. To disregard the use of ChatGPT is a missed opportunity.

The adaptability of ChatGPT is another useful characteristic, meaning it can be used for any essay. A language model that analyses any and every topic means that ChatGPT is accessible to anyone. This means that no topic is off limits and is truly a tool for all.

An instance where ChatGPT has explicitly been used to write a university essay was done by a student in Manchester. Using ChatGPT, a graduate entered 10 questions to produce a 3500 word essay. Amazingly, the essay was marked and received a 2:2. Meaning that ChatGPT could pass a final year module, in theory.

ChatGPT is clearly good at what it says on the tin – does this present an opportunity to innovate university learning? It is clearly an evolving technology that is continuing to improve. To disregard the use of ChatGPT is a missed opportunity. A zero tolerance policy may be apt for the time being, but with ever growing research and understanding around this topic, the policy should be updated to embrace the advancements made without missing a key opportunity to grow.

Is this just another lazy tool for students to escape the grind?

Although, while it is considered to be quick and convenient, there are several downsides to using ChatGPT for essays. It is only befitting to address the elephant in the room and point out how generative AI butchers originality and cultivates homogeneity of thought. Students who rely heavily on ChatGPT for submitting essays, forgo adding personal touch and unique perspectives to distinguish their work. This makes us wonder if ChatGPT prompts are the only original ideas students have anymore.

This furthers our argument for questioning the degree of understanding students can derive when using ChatGPT. As a ‘self-aware’ tool that admits to making mistakes in its warning footnote, students relying heavily on its content risk spreading misinformation without independently conducting research and verifying facts from a reliable source. This is a significant challenge also because ChatGPT operates by just reorganising existing information without checking its validity. 

Not knowing where the information comes from can also lead to unintentional plagiarism by students. Pulling information from various sources prohibits ChatGPT from providing proper citations or sources leading to questionable academic practices and venturing into the territory of ethical misconduct. It’s almost disappointing to see how in one swish and flick it perpetuates both a lack of original thought as well as not giving credit where rightfully due. 

It is also hard to detect the use of AI if the student has not purely copied and pasted from ChatGPT. When used directly, software like Turnitin would detect the use of previous work, but if slightly tweaked or reworded then it is disguised as original content from the student and in fact hard to detect.

Academic writing in itself requires more than just a cluster of information and resources stuffed in a parcel. The packaging is truly what makes it count. Think about the analogy of giving a gift. Would you prefer and appreciate a thoughtful, specifically handpicked, and personally wrapped gift or a mass-produced Hallmark souvenir with generic store packaging? To be fair to Hallmark, it still does the job but isn’t it the bare minimum and so easily forgettable? 

In the same fashion, a machine-generated essay will provide you with just enough information to reach your word count (it will even meet your word count for you to be honest!) but it will strip you of the joy of hitting those eureka moments of analysis and learning. It will prevent you from applying yourself to make the essay your own while honing skills in critical and analytical thinking along the way. Many can argue that it can stunt the academic development of students and hinder rounded progress and development.

Additionally, most institutes today, including our own, have already factored in the use of AI by students and consider it to be a breach of the ethical code of conduct. It instantly falls into the category of plagiarism and can therefore question the academic integrity of the student and the work submitted by them. It defeats the true essence of assigning coursework to teach and enhance comprehension, engagement, and critical thinking and encourages dependency on technology to the extent of forgoing intentional thought and independent thinking.

By large, while it can be a useful tool to brainstorm and outline essays and ideas, it should not be relied upon for end-to-end essay generation. While it can be a tool that adds additional support to your educational journey, it should not be dependent upon piggybacking you to the end.   

Having said that, AI is only going to grow and percolate all areas of our lives in one way or another. So why not embrace these advancements and find a way to incorporate it in the education sector in a more structured way than to employ a zero tolerance policy? Students always have a knack of finding loopholes, don’t you think? 

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