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Rise in AI writing raises questions for higher education

Until recently, most faculty members at the University of South Dakota weren’t very familiar with the artificial intelligence software called ChatGPT.

“I think kind of as a faculty, we had not given this much thought at New Year’s Day,” said Neil Fulton, dean of USD’s Knudson School of Law. “We started classes the first school week in January, and by the second week, we had given (it) a lot of discussion.”

The writing engine, created by OpenAI and launched last November, has users submit prompts to create artificially generated works.

Now, along with universities across the country, USD and other South Dakota colleges are catching up on what the rise of artificial intelligence is going to mean for the future of writing, especially in higher education.

Though AI has been growing more and more popular for some time, ChatGPT’s introduction raised new questions for faculty and administration on how it would affect lesson plans and assignments.

Kevin Sackreiter, director of South Dakota State’s Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, said the main concern about AI among faculty and administrators is when students use it to make “nonlearning choices” that lead to plagiarism and how faculty can discourage that.

"We can chase cheating and we can try to prevent it, but we’re never going to win that battle,” he said. “We can decrease the value of making those choices through the pedagogy that we use.”

Sackreiter and a colleague at SDSU, Instructional Design Director Shouhong Zhang, discussed many of these concerns with other university representatives during a workshop earlier this spring.

AI like ChatGPT isn’t perfect, as it still isn’t intuitive enough to understand all the aspects of language and writing required for college assignments.

"This information generated by ChatGPT, you still have to modify everything,” Zhang said. “It’s like Wikipedia, a lot of educators steer students away from using Wikipedia because those are not peer reviewed.”

Still, there can be benefits to learning about and using AI. Zhang said recent professional discussions about AI have suggested it will be “critical” for students to utilize the technology in the next decade.

"It’s going to be critical for the students learning the skills of prompting,” he said. “It’s like 20 years ago, we required new technology literary skills. That’s going to be the very similar thing.”

Some educators have already started incorporating AI into their lessons. Sarah Rude, an assistant professor of English at Augustana University, is using ChatGPT in some of her classes to help students improve revision and drafting techniques and learn more about the writing process.

“I had students brainstorm ideas for their first essays, but then I had them use those ideas to have ChatGPT write an outline and then think about how that outline compares to something that they would have produced on their own,” she said. “And we actually had some pretty good success with that, and students were pretty excited about how this really helped them organize their ideas.”

Rude added that AI can be a boost not only for students who struggle with creative classes like English, but also international students or students whose first language isn’t English, since it can develop more “natural” sounding English.

She emphasized a need to balance the use of AI. Rude said relying on technology to write too much can take the human element out of creative works.

“If we need students to demonstrate their learning, then we really can’t have the core parts of the writing process be done by a machine,” she said,” and so I feel like some really good ways for students to approach using ChatGPT in their writing is perhaps as a brainstorming tool.”

Other universities, like Black Hills State University, have formed administrative and faculty work groups to discuss AI’s growth and the impact it’s had at the university. The BHSU group formed in January.

“Its goals are really to monitor how AI is being used on campus this semester as it starts to make its way through student communities,” said Nick Van Kley, director for the Center of Faculty Innovation at BHSU.

Another member of the group, Nick Drummond, associate professor of political science, said while these writing engines can help students generate ideas, they might not necessarily help students fully absorb that knowledge.

“It can be a good starting point, but it’s going to only give you a kind of consensus view or superficial view of the topic,” he said.

Though some college administrators are hesitant to incorporate ChatGPT into curricula, Fulton said doing so might be necessary to keep up with changes in the work force.

“I know there are (law) firms and people out there in practice wrestling with trying to use this for efficiency and generate work product, so I think at some point, in some practical classes, we’re going to have to wrestle with whether we introduce it to students purposefully,” he said.

USD law students take several courses on how to write legal documents and arguments, another area where students can use ChatGPT to generate text.

Drummond also said including AI in college classroom discussions could prepare students for a future where using this technology will be more common.

"I think it’s already being used in the business world and all sorts of fields, and with that in mind, I think maybe there is a responsibility on our part to make our students employable, marketable to employers,” he said.

The future of AI like ChatGPT will continue to evolve and learn over time. Though universities in the state are still discussing the implications for higher education, Sackreiter is hopeful that students and faculty will work together to address AI in the future.

"I really hope we’re all in it together … and we don’t view it as an us versus them, but we view this as an educational process that we all engage in together,” he said.

Jordan is a senior English and journalism major at SDSU in Brookings. She is from De Smet, South Dakota. She is based out of the Sioux Falls studio.