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Considerations for AI Tools in the Classroom

Given the rapid pace of technological innovation and development, higher education, like nearly all industries, is continuously called upon to consider creative approaches to teaching and learning. The following resource offers instructors a brief introduction to AI tools, specifically ChatGPT, along with several strategies they might consider for navigating or engaging with these tools in their courses.

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What are AI Tools?

While it is true that the classroom will continue to be faced with these new innovations that can seem to bring about new disruptions, much of the science of teaching and learning offers tools and support for navigating and responding to the ongoing shifts. As such, there are many pedagogical approaches available to instructors that can enable students to continue learning, and for instructors themselves to keep teaching in new and innovative landscapes. 

Most recently, higher education has grappled with the seemingly-overnight introduction of ChatGPT, which first became available in November 2022 and has since captivated the discourse in higher education as the Fall semester came to a close, and instructors began preparing their courses for the Spring 2023 semester. The following section offers an overview of ChatGPT, what it does, and its current limitations. It’s important to recognize, however, that because the technology is self-learning, it can improve and evolve quickly; thus, what is a limitation today could be addressed in future iterations or versions. Similarly, while ChatGPT is the tool of the moment and remains the focus of this resource, the field of AI tools will continue to grow, develop, and evolve. For example, other tools such as OpenAI’s Dall-E 2 application can uniquely generate images based on prompts that are given. The use cases for AI will continue to expand moving forward.

ChatGPT 

ChatGPT, created by OpenAI, is a “model […] which interacts in a conversational way” and has the ability to “answer followup [sic] questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests” (OpenAI Blog, “ChatGPT”). In respect to the classroom, ChatGPT can produce written responses to input prompts, write essays and poems, assist with computer code, provide feedback on student-written text, and more. 

Despite ChatGPT’s capabilities, like many AI tools, it does have a variety of limitations. Some of these current limitations include: 

  • Writing about events or information occurring since 2021: Because of how ChatGPT accesses information to craft responses, the bot is unable to draw from or respond to questions about events since 2021. Even with information from before 2021, ChatGPT is prone to making factual mistakes often confusing similar information. 
  • Generating personal reflections: ChatGPT can generate responses to questions and prompts, but it is still an AI bot; thus, it is unable to respond to a prompt that requires a student’s personal experience or reflections. 
  • Producing non-text based responses: Despite the availability of other image-based AI generators, ChatGPT responses are strictly text-based. Therefore, any response produced can only offer text. 
  • Making connections between course readings and materials: ChatGPT pulls from its own sources, so it’s not possible for the bot to respond and draw from specific course materials or make connections between course material in any meaningful way.

Being aware of ChatGPT’s capabilities and limitations can help to ease some instructors’ curiosity or concerns. At the same time, it can help instructors talk openly with their students about the potential role of the tool in the course and what is expected. Additionally, knowing what ChatGPT can and cannot do can also help instructors make decisions around course and assignment design. The following section offers several approaches for instructors to consider when developing their own approaches to ChatGPT in their own courses. 

ChatGPT in the Classroom

There is no one correct way to navigate the use of ChatGPT in the classroom. The role it plays (or doesn’t) in a course will depend on several factors including course objectives and goals, disciplinary skills that students need to practice, and instructors’ own comfort level with engaging with the tool. No matter how instructors respond to the evolution of AI tools, it’s important to have explicit expectations, and provide opportunities for clear conversations with students about those expectations. Read on to learn more about several possible approaches and considerations to help instructors start navigating, leveraging, and possibly even engaging ChatGPT (and future AI tools) in their course. 

Develop Course Policies that Include Digital Transparency 

It is important to be explicit with students about the expectations around the usage of ChatGPT and other AI tools in your course. For example, ChatGPT is capable of reading a student’s essay and providing meaningful feedback that can then be used by the student to make edits. As the instructor, it’s important to be clear about these expectations: can students use the tool for feedback on their own writing? If so, how should they disclose their use? As with all course policies, especially those around academic integrity, it is essential for instructors to be explicit and transparent with their expectations, and to have frank conversations with their students. Additionally, instructors might partner with their students to develop the policies around usage in the course. This partnership can create opportunities for instructors and students to talk in detail about the evolution of particular tools, their potential benefits in specific disciplines, and their limitations. Instructors should be explicit about the course objectives and how the use of these tools might interfere with students’ learning and their achievement of particular learning goals. 

Scaffold Activities and Assignments

Regardless of AI tool innovation or evolution, one important approach for instructors is to leverage scaffolded activities and assignments. Scaffolding is the process of breaking down a larger assignment into subtasks, which create opportunities for students to check-in and receive feedback. At the same time, scaffolding can help instructors become more familiar with students’ work as the semester progresses. This cyclical process of feedback and revision makes the use of tools like ChatGPT challenging and perhaps even unlikely, as students will provide drafts incrementally, and engage in the process of drafting and revision. More importantly, though, this breaking down of a large project into incremental parts helps students to more deeply engage with the different skills and component parts, while also creating valuable time for feedback and reflection throughout the process. 

Design Authentic Assessments for Learning 

Authentic assessments centered on student learning can help prevent the use or aid of ChatGPT and other AI tools. These kinds of authentic assessments ask students to apply the course concepts they have learned to a “real world” situation or problem. In doing so, authentic assessments can enhance student learning by engaging students in “doing” a particular subject and practicing specific disciplinary skills that will help prepare them for their professional lives outside the classroom. Additionally, these kinds of assignments engage students in higher order thinking and require that they grapple with real world problems and challenges. Designing authentic assessments can ask students to draw from and engage with specific course materials, make connections between course concepts, or also ask students to incorporate their personal experiences or reflections. In this way, authentic assessments prevent the use of tools like ChatGPT in that their very design and objectives are rooted within specific course concepts, while also asking students to infuse their own experiences and reflections. 

Incorporate AI Tools into Assignment Design

For some courses, depending on the goals and objectives, instructors might consider ways to incorporate AI tools in their assignment design; in doing so, instructors can provide students with opportunities to practice and foster the digital literacy skills they will need for the future. These kinds of creative assignments might ask students to produce AI-written texts as a way to develop awareness of voice, authorship, and accuracy. Additionally, students could apply a rubric and offer feedback on AI-produced texts to build deeper awareness of a course prompt. Lastly, in some instances, ChatGPT might be called upon as a learning support tool, where students ask for feedback on their own texts, have readings summarized, create personalized study materials, or brainstorm for ideas. No matter the assignment design approach taken, instructors should offer opportunities to discuss the assignment with students, asking them to reflect on the experience and analyze their engagement with the tool. 

Conclusion

Perhaps unsurprisingly, higher education, like all industries, will continue to feel the impacts of technological evolution and growth. As such, and like they always have, classrooms will continue to remain flexible and responsive to this evolution. With digital innovation and developments, the capabilities (and limitations) of today’s AI tools, including ChatGPT, will shift and evolve. For that reason, trying to completely ignore or shut out these tools, or even adopting an approach of complete disengagement will not serve instructors and their students in the long-term. Instead, instructors have an opportunity to rethink and focus on the elements of their course over which they have the most control, including transparent course policies, explicit communication, partnerships with students, and course and assignment design. Leveraging these aspects of teaching and learning can better serve instructors and their students no matter the digital innovations of the future.

The CTL is here to help!

Looking to develop scaffolded authentic assignments for your course? Want to know more about designing assignments that incorporate AI Tools? Have questions about your digital transparency course policies? The CTL is here to help – email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule a 1-1 consultation!

Resources and References

Columbia CTL Related Resources 

Additional Related Resources

References

D’Agostino, S. (January 2023). Academic experts offer advice on ChatGPT. Inside Higher Ed.  

Mintz, S. (January 2023). ChatGPT: Threat or menace?. Inside Higher Ed.

OpenAI. (November 2022). ChatGPT: Optimizing language models for dialogue. OpenAI.