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UW instructors are thinking about how to live with, or use, ChatGPT

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University of Wyoming (UW) English Instructor Rick Fisher has been thinking about what AI means for the future of education. He told Wyoming Public Radio’s Jeff Victor that the existence of ChatGPT might require teachers to rethink essay assignments, but it hasn't changed what education is fundamentally about.

The following script has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity

Jeff Victor: So what is ChatGPT?

Rick Fisher: Yeah, so as I understand it, it's a new application that builds from a large language model. As I understand it, these are relatively new, really only five or six years old, and dramatically increase the ability of the machine to generate natural sounding text based on its crawling of billions of words of tags. And then it uses that, plus some human training, to try to generate the next most likely word in a sequence related to whatever prompt you've given.

JV: AI is not your specific area of expertise, but tell me what you do teach about and how you got interested in ChatGPT — or what about it captured your attention.

RF: So my background is in writing, communication, composition and literacy. So that means that I'm interested, in general terms, in the ways that we use language to do the work in the world that we want to accomplish. And so I've always been interested in the way that technology is a player in that process. And we've been complaining about technologies since papyrus, so this, in some ways, is a version of a very old set of tensions. But certainly, I'm not familiar with the way that AI creates some of the effects that it's producing.

JV: So the big question that a lot of instructors are wondering right now is, at this point, can chat GPT write an essay for a student?

RF: So I think that if a student knows how to ask for certain kinds of responses, it probably can do a pretty good job of generating some text that might pass for student writing. Yes.

JV: So is it all over? How do you teach or assign homework in the age of ChatGPT?

RF: I mean, as I think about it, I don't think that anything about what we want to accomplish in education has changed. So with the arrival of ChatGPT, it does not change what we want to accomplish in teaching — which I think is something like: producing better thinkers who are able to participate in the world around them. And so for me, the really interesting thing is how ChatGPT becomes a player in that space. There are certainly things the ChatGPT is not really great about doing in a student essay. For example, right now citation is something that it's been critiqued for; it's not really very good at attributing the words that it might produce. And so it seems like its arrival allows us to focus on new ways of engaging students in that thinking process.

JV: And are you hopeful that instructors can adapt or as your colleagues have talked to you, does it seem like people are adapting?

RF: I've been buoyed by the optimism that I've heard from my colleagues on campus and so that's been kind of exciting. And I am optimistic that both the field of composition — the traditional teachers of writing — as well as faculty who value writing in their own courses will find ways to see ChatGPT as a kind of collaborator in the process of improving student writing, communication and understanding of the content of their field.

JV: And I asked you about the challenges but to kind of take the other angle. What do you think has been actually exciting about ChatGPT for teaching or for education? I imagine it can do all sorts of things.

RF: So where I'm at right now is trying to wrap my head around ChatGPT as providing what I'm calling a new baseline for student text. And so really, for me, what's exciting about it is just how quickly it can generate some texts to start from. And for me, that is maybe a kind of equity issue for students who have really struggled in the past and who have not seen themselves as competent writers. Just the task of generating a first draft is often really daunting. And so if they can collaborate with ChatGPT to generate the first 500 words of what they're trying to do, and then can see ways to start improving on that, I think that that's actually a step forward — may be a step forward — in their thinking and their ability to interact with the content, in their ability to think about how they shape writing. And so that's one of the places where I'm excited about its potential.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.

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