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What Can AI Teach Us?

UCF explores ways to learn from AI chatbots like ChatGPT to improve the learning experience for students and faculty. 

You settle into your chair and open your laptop to start writing your last planetary science paper of the semester. Frustration builds as you gaze at a blank document. You remember ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot everyone’s talking about. You log in and start a new chat: “Write an outline for a 1,000-word paper about ways to build infrastructure on Mars.” Within seconds, a detailed list is generated, including everything from an introduction about “the importance of building infrastructure on Mars,” to main points like “understanding the Martian environment.”

You smile to yourself, knowing that ChatGPT just saved you from pulling an all-nighter.

Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer, or ChatGPT, is an AI language model launched by OpenAI in November 2022. After it quickly went viral, industries including education, healthcare and the arts have been scrambling to understand its functions and effects. Programmed with human-like responses to requests and questions, ChatGPT can write compelling essays, solve math problems and even plan your next vacation — just by typing a prompt. A major technology breakthrough, yes — but one that raises a host of ethical, political, economic and social questions.

As generative AI technology rapidly evolves, it’s important to begin mastering its capabilities to educate future generations. Who better to prepare students for a future filled with a variety of AI tools than educators?

“In many ways, I think these generative AI models are going to be a tool used in a lot of industries,” says Thomas Cavanagh ’06PhD, UCF’s vice provost for digital learning. “If we’re not teaching students how to effectively use them, then we’re missing a real opportunity to help them be successful in their careers.”

Opening Doors for Digital Learning

UCF Digital Learning has been evolving learning methods to meet the needs of UCF students, faculty and community partners for more than 26 years. The Division of Digital Learning, currently led by Cavanagh, was established in 2017 to leverage state-of-the-art technology to deliver a high-quality learning experience.

“Every class is different in how they need to approach AI,” Cavanagh says. “The objectives of the course are going to determine a lot of the strategy.”

ChatGPT can perform reasonably well — and fast — with several tasks and academic subjects. Students are getting comfortable with how easy it is to use to write essays and solve problem sets. In a recent student-led experiment, GPT-4 was even capable of passing freshman year at Harvard University with a 3.34 grade point average.

Without doubt, educators everywhere are concerned about ChatGPT’s negative impact on student learning, the accuracy of its responses and the possibility of cheating.

“In some cases, [faculty] may want to prohibit the use of AI in [their] class,” Cavanagh says. “But there is a certain [bit] of truth in the argument that [ChatGPT] is just an extension of existing tools, like a calculator is in math.”

Generative AI tools, like ChatGPT, can perform foundational work, freeing up time to spend on more complex topics. There’s potential in its use as an educational tool, for both students and educators, to create outlines for essays, write personalized lesson plans or even provide feedback on an assignment in a fraction of the time that a professor could.

Cavanagh says some UCF faculty members have already started incorporating AI into their instruction. One instance was having students use ChatGPT to write their first essay draft. Then, without using ChatGPT, they rewrote the essay and explained what they changed to improve it.

Teaching Our Teachers

UCF’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, in partnership with the Division of Digital Learning, started developing AI best practices for UCF faculty in December 2022. Methods include everything from how to neutralize ChatGPT for academic integrity purposes to ways the software can be used in their assignments while still ensuring students aren’t losing their ability to think critically.

“Critical thinking doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding AI tools,” says Kevin Yee, director of UCF’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. “Just as easily, faculty can create assignments that make use of AI and still challenge students to solve problems, apply concepts and think critically.”

Equally important is maintaining academic integrity. Yee says that the center, which supports UCF instructors with effective teaching methods, has developed several recommendations for types of essay and project prompts that can minimize the risk of academic dishonesty using ChatGPT. Above all, instructors should be explicit about plagiarism and set the expectation for their students.

Conversations on Campus

UCF is looking at AI across three dimensions: how it’s impacting research, how it can be used to help faculty build their courses and how students can be taught to effectively use it.

The rise of AI has sparked many discussions and presentations about its abilities and, more importantly, how it’s transforming nearly every industry — including higher education.

UCF stepped up by hosting the first nationwide AI conference for higher education practitioners in September. Representatives from institutions across the country gathered to share best practices and discuss the impact that AI will have on teaching and learning in colleges.

Being a leader in digital pedagogy uniquely positioned the university to share its best practices with integrating emerging technology. Educators also got a glimpse of the exceptional way UCF supports its faculty through the Faculty Center.

“As we elevate our readiness to help UCF students achieve AI fluency … we expect UCF’s name will increasingly become associated with this kind of practical application of AI in teaching,” Yee says.