Charting a new course for university education in the age of ChatGPT
With the advent of ChatGPT, now is the time for universities to embark on a grand new adventure, write UNSW Business School's Chona Ryan, Christine Van Toorn, Eric Lim, Michael Cahalane and Sam Kirshner
From healthcare to entertainment, ChatGPT has taken the world by storm. The AI language model counted Elon Musk as an early investor and has since had billions of US dollars poured into it by Microsoft. Developed by OpenAI, ChatGPT has rocked the foundations of communication and transformed the way we interact with technology.
With its unparalleled ability to understand and respond to questions, ChatGPT is revolutionising the way we search for information, ideate and innovate, as well as communicate and write. So naturally, ChatGPT's impact on education has been nothing short of remarkable, causing many educators to reflect on the very purpose of university education.
In essence, this technology disrupts the fundamental principles which universities are built upon. University education has a beautiful and almost ritualistic tradition built on this concept of apprenticeship that celebrates the transcendence of this state. Universities are built on the implicit promise that one can attain a state of true freedom through hard work, reaching their greatest potential as an individual. It is the archetypal hero’s journey that has inspired the celebration of universities as one of the fundamental institutions of society.
Challenges for the archetypal hero's journey
As we contemplate the impact of ChatGPT on education and the principles upon which universities are built, we must also consider how this technology challenges the archetypal hero's journey that is at the heart of the university experience. Now, if the foundational value of the university is to provide students with an adventure leading to enlightenment, then the biggest concern about ChatGPT being unleashed on the world is how this technology would disrupt these fundamental principles.
The optimistic and logical way out of this conundrum is simply to go on a bigger and grander journey. ChatGPT must now be seen as our modern call to adventure. In the past, we have dealt with technological advances by developing tools to counteract their impact or to take legal actions against the Course Hero website or against online contract cheating.
But now the time has come to stop playing defence and simply aim even higher. It is time to rethink everything we know about our current way of assessing students. Traditional assessments that are related to writing and solving static problems need to go. Designing university education through which knowledge is acquired and then demonstrated by students via their understanding, can no longer be assessed via traditional means. Instead, we need to shift our emphasis to three self-evident areas.
Communicating clearly, coherently and confidently
Firstly, we should focus on the ability to speak logically and articulate clearly, and not simply on the ability to read from a script. Can a student speak in a way that can inspire and persuade people of their arguments? Can the student speak coherently with conviction and charisma? Can the student convey their creativity and critical thinking through their articulation?
Obviously, it also means that the emphasis is now on dialogue where questions can be raised. The time has come for students to take up the mantle, stop hiding behind lengthy reports with pages of appendices and truly think about how to condense and articulate their report’s content in a dialogue that can evolve their thoughts.
Essentially, the point is that technology like ChatGPT can provide outcomes to prompts, but students who wish to submit such outcomes as their own must own these outcomes by thoroughly understanding how they are derived. If they do not own these outcomes, they are likely unable to have proper conversations or speak about them coherently.
The importance of experiential learning
Secondly, universities should make the switch to “live” problems that are evolving in class, and stop feeding students problems from the past. The assumption is that learning happens in real time with the assistance of AI. We must focus on providing students with hands-on, experiential learning opportunities.
Assessments should be increasingly based on creation, like producing practical artefacts. Initiatives like internships, work-integrated placements, co-op industry placements, fieldwork and other forms of real-world experience must scale within the class. By emphasising experiential learning, universities can provide students with valuable skills and experiences that cannot be replicated by a chatbot.
In other words, it is time to produce something that will receive feedback about the students’ endeavours from the only place that matters: the free market.
Assessing the quality of the process
Thirdly, the grand adventure means that students will have to work together, but this doesn't mean merely forming groups and splitting up the work. The emphasis should now be on how students interact with one another. Are they able to collaborate effectively and efficiently? Do they demonstrate professionalism, maturity and respect for one another? Have they developed a set of protocols that allow them to work harmoniously and productively together?
As we shift to a more dialogue-based approach to learning, the assessment will be about the quality of the process rather than simply the outcome. Ultimately, it is time for students to demonstrate that they can apply the principles upon which our cultures and civilisations are built: to work together despite differences and diversity of backgrounds.
By fostering a collaborative and inclusive learning environment, universities can prepare students for success in the global economy and help them become responsible, ethical and empathetic leaders in their chosen fields.
Leading by example
While this seems like a substantial undertaking, forward-thinking universities have already laid the foundation for these three domains.
For example, over the past few years, UNSW Sydney has increasingly focused on how to generate economic and societal impact from the classroom and how best to incorporate research to incubate feasible projects into sandboxes and realised products and services. It means that universities like UNSW are well-structured and well-positioned to solve live problems by collaborating with stakeholders and industry partners.
The foundations are in place. Now is the time to scale. Now is the time for universities to embark on a grand new adventure!
Ms Chona Ryan is a lecturer, Dr Christine Van Toorn, Dr Eric Lim, Dr Michael Cahalane are Senior Lecturers and Dr Sam Kirshner is an Associate Professor in the School of Information Systems & Technology Management at UNSW Business School.