AI in Class: Vt. colleges weigh risks and opportunities of ChatGPT

Chatbots have the ability to do nearly any writing task for users, forcing higher education institutions to adapt.
Published: Feb. 7, 2023 at 5:21 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Chatbots have the ability to do nearly any writing task, forcing many college instructors to adapt.

The University of Vermont recently held two town hall meetings to hear faculty’s experience with the computer program ChatGPT. Ongoing conversations are also happening at St. Michael’s College. Both institutions said that while they’re working to stay ahead of academic dishonesty, they’re also looking to see how students can take advantage of ChatGPT productively.

If you have a question, ChatGPT has the answer. It’s an artificial intelligence chatbot that’s only a few months old.

“Chatbots with writing are an extension maybe into a new area, but they’re not brand new,” said Susanmarie Harrington, a writing professor at the University of Vermont. She noted that ChatGPT and academic integrity have been a hot topic and that while she hasn’t heard of any instances of students handing in essays written by the chatbots, it is something the university is keeping an eye on.

A loophole in the UVM Academic Misconduct Policy was recently revised to make it clear students must be the ones to hand in work they did. “Standards may differ from instructor to instructor or course to course, and thus, the most important thing for students to know is that they need to follow the instructions and the guidelines that are given in the assignments,” said Harrington. She said professors usually know if writing is from their students but notes that ChatGPT is pretty good at its job. She said they’re looking to see how ChatGPT can be used for good, like generating ideas and polishing thinking. “I think the more interesting questions for us are not about this discipline and punishment side of things but if this is going to be part of writing ecology, who uses it and why? And what do you have to do with it?”

“In some classes, we’re creating in-class assignments -- students obviously can’t use ChatGPT in class. But some faculty are also requiring students to use ChatGPT because we recognize that we’re preparing students for a 21st-century workforce,” said Crystal L’Hote, a philosophy professor at St. Michael’s College.

St. Michael’s is taking a similar approach to UVM and seeing how ChatGPT continues to play out. L’Hote said so far there isn’t an institution-wide ban or endorsement on ChatGPT and notes that plagiarism detection websites like Turnitin are working on improving their technology, too.

L’Hote said it’s a balance and encourages conversations around what it means for education. “We’re trying to be really responsive to the experiences students are having in the classroom, what they’re learning, what they’re not learning as a consequence of this technology. So, we’re on alert, certainly. And what that means for the future sort of depends on how things unfold,” she said.

Middlebury College is also discussing chatbots and their implications with faculty. They said all Middlebury students sign their honor code, enhancing academic integrity regardless of technology.