Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

How can ChatGPT help us rethink education?

Published on 24 February 2023
Updated on 19 March 2024

ChatGPT has triggered panic in academic circles. As students started using AI to write their homework, essays, and theses,  many universities and schools banned using AI for written assignments. Even on a purely technical level, the ban won’t work. AI-generated text can’t be found as easily and reliably as, say, plagiarised text. But, it is not just a technical matter if professors can spot AI text. 

The real question is the adequacy of the educational system per se which could make otherwise ethical students opt for unethical behavior. Are the students using ChatGPT as a quiet protest against the study-to-test approach that is so common in the humanities? Perhaps they’re responding to the treatment they receive. If students are asked to focus mostly on formalities and ‘numbers’ to be successful in their studies, they will react ‘rationally’ using tools such as ChatGPT. 

In the 30 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve learned that when you use creative pedagogy, students respond positively. My digital governance students enjoyed learning while walking in the Botanical Garden of Geneva. Also, as part of the course, they did negotiation exercises or simulated business lunches with tech companies. Innovative methods and real-life settings outside of the traditional classroom tend to create more ‘memory hooks’ and help us internalise new knowledge and skills.

However, pedagogical innovations are not always easy to implement, especially in highly formalised education systems. 

Elementary School Class: Teacher Uses Interactive Digital Whiteboard, Explains Lesson to Diverse Group of Smart Children. Kids getting Modern Education, Learn Computer Science, Software Programming

What can be done?

Some short-term solutions, such as banning AI in education, could be used in rare cases to deal with the crisis and keep the current education system from falling apart. However, proper educational reforms are badly needed. And time is not on our side as these reforms require us to ‘fix the plane we’re flying in’. In this process, there should be clarity of purpose: learning that cherishes human creativity and critical thinking. The following few practical steps should be taken. 

Create a learning context by giving teachers flexibility

Learning should be anchored within specific cultural and social contexts. Teachers should be the creators of a learning environment that encourages creativity, critical thinking, and solving problems. Together with students, teachers are responsible for the success of learning. Finland is the best example of such an approach. 

Foster creative and critical writing

ChatGPT affects writing as a key educational tool. For centuries, writing has been central to nurturing creative and critical thinking through organising information and developing narratives. This key role of writing in pedagogy should remain in the AI era as well. However, our focus should be on providing insights that AI cannot produce. Students’ theses and essays should be shorter, deeper in reflection, and anchored in a specific context. 

Shift from publish-or-perish to pedagogy-or-perish

Teaching is a noble and responsible profession. In exchange for quality teaching, students respond with emotions and curiosity. In order to respect this unique ‘investment’, academic institutions must shift from a publish-or-perish to a pedagogy-or-perish approach. Moreover, as AI will strongly challenge the way research is conducted, teaching will remain a unique niche that is not likely to be replaced soon by AI. 

Make learning a journey of discovery

The process of learning is equally, if not more, important than the ‘end product’ (exam, paper). As we write, we explore new ideas and sharpen existing ones. Discovery and ‘Eureka moments” happen at different points for individual students on the learning journey. 

Avoid simplified quantifications

The current obsession with quantification and measurement harms the learning experience. The quality of narrative and insight should be more important than the number of words in papers. Inspired by the old saying that goes, ‘I did not have time to write a short letter’, we should ask students to prepare shorter, well-organised texts.

Flying letters concept with pen

Using AI to reform education

AI and ChatGPT can help overcome writer’s block. Prof.  Doris Weßels, Germany’s leading expert in this field, calls to embrace AI in education via ‘close supervisory relationships and more creative, cross-disciplinary collaboration’. AI has many uses in providing feedback on students’ work. AI could be a useful servant but a very dangerous master. 

How can educational reform impact emerging social contracts?

AI and education are critical aspects of discussions for the future of our society. If tools like ‘ChatGPT’ can improve critical thinking, the result could be increased resistance to misinformation and various sorts of manipulation. It can also make public debates on important social and political issues more relevant and impactful.

The educational crisis is not only about fixing pedagogy but also revisiting some of the pillars of our merit-based society, as Professor Sandel described in his book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’. Merits are often judged based on the results of exams and credits taken. But the merits of all of us for society are much broader, as we realised during the pandemics when low-skill work provided much more relevance and merit for society than many ‘white collar’  professions.

Many questions are in front of us to be addressed as we start nurturing new social contracts for organising our society and lives. In education and other fields, AI and ChatGPT put the key issues into sharper focus with more clarity.

Thus, we should not ‘waste the crisis’ triggered by ChatGPT.

If you want to republish this text as an op-ed or follow up with the author, please contact comms@diplomacy.edu

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