by Dr. Hector Vila, Associate Professor of Writing & Rhetoric

Since the release of ChatGPT in November 2022, many people have been discussing the potential benefits and drawbacks of using this type of language processing model in education. ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, uses machine learning techniques to generate natural language text that can be difficult to differentiate from text written by humans. As a result, ChatGPT has prompted educators to reconsider their teaching methods in this new era of machine-aided learning.

Students are already using Grammarly, a writing and grammar checking tool that helps users improve their writing skills and provides feedback on spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, as well as suggestions for improving word choice and style; students can also choose from a variety of AI tools, not just ChatGPT—Google’s BERT, Microsoft’s Azure Text Generation service, Stanford University’s GloVe, and Galactica, which is similar to ChatGPT, “a large language model that can store, combine and reason about scientific knowledge,” to name just a few.

Are teachers relevant anymore? Will students use AI to cheat on their writing assignments? And how can teachers differentiate?

The early 1990s saw a significant shift in the education landscape as the National Science Foundation (NSF) lifted its restrictions on the commercial use of the internet. This allowed universities and colleges to connect to the internet using commercial internet service providers (ISPs), leading to a rapid expansion of the internet on campuses. The change caused some confusion and concern among educators as we grappled with the implications of this new technology.

As someone who experienced the transition from analog to digital firsthand, I can understand the confusion and alarm that arose during those early days. Similarly, the rapid advancement of general purpose artificial intelligence (AI) may seem sudden and overwhelming to some, though it’s been a long time coming. Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, in his essay Moore’s Law of Everything, says that “this technological revolution is unstoppable,” and will only continue to accelerate as these intelligent machines help us create even smarter ones. It is clear that we are on the cusp of a new era of innovation.

Moore’s law, a prediction made by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, in 1965, states that the number of transistors in a densely integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The growth rate of AI is significantly greater, says Altman, with model sizes and capabilities increasing by a factor of 10 each year. While limits to this growth may eventually be reached, it is uncertain when or where these limits will occur. Additionally, it is unknown what new and powerful developments in AI may be discovered in the future.

As a result, we can expect rapid growth in general purpose artificial intelligence that will have significant impact on various sectors, including economics, healthcare, housing, and education. These developments will require us to adapt as machines become more integrated into our daily lives. This will affect pedagogy, and our understanding of labor in all industries.

So, what does this mean for us at Middlebury College?

Beth McMurtie, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, tells us that “Scholars of teaching, writing, and digital literacy say there’s no doubt that tools like ChatGPT will, in some shape or form, become part of everyday writing, the way calculators and computers have become integral to math and science. It is critical, they say, to begin conversations with students and colleagues about how to shape and harness these AI tools as an aid, rather than a substitute, for learning.”

In other words, it is pedagogically sound to bring ChatGPT front and center. Brent Warner, in AI for Language Learning: ChatGPT and the Future of ELT, says that “Without a doubt, there are going to be problems with plagiarism and ghostwriting, and there will be many who will simply throw up their hands and proclaim that they don’t need to study anymore, because look what ChatGPT can do! As teachers, it will be our responsibility to help students see not only what this type of AI can do for them, but what unimaginable futures it can build with them.”

As AI continues to advance and impact all disciplines, it may be necessary to revisit and revise Middlebury’s Honor Code to reflect technological developments. Additionally, the integration of AI across disciplines raises questions about how we might work effectively across disciplines, such as a writing instructor collaborating with STEM faculty to create pedagogical models that demonstrate the potential benefits of AI to students, and as Warner suggests, “help students see … what this type of AI can do for them.”

The release of ChatGPT has personally prompted me to consider my role as a writing teacher and how I can introduce AI to help students develop creative and authentic approaches to writing. I believe that ChatGPT has the potential to enable me to individualize instruction even more, and foster deeper inquiry into a student’s motivations for writing. I envision that this approach can be applied across all disciplines and that we can achieve even greater success by working collaboratively to better understand what we’ve walked into.

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