What Does ChatGPT Mean for Liberal Arts Education?
In college writing, the future of artificial intelligence is now
Especially if you work in higher ed, you’ve probably heard of an artificial intelligence project called ChatGPT. Coming to the world courtesy of a research lab called OpenAI, ChatGPT has stunned, intrigued, and/or horrified early users with its machine-learned ability to generate plausible responses to a variety of writing prompts. “While versions of GPT [Generative Pre-trained Transformer] have been around for a while,” explained the Harvard Business Review, “this model has crossed a threshold: It’s genuinely useful for a wide range of tasks, from creating software to generating business ideas to writing a wedding toast. While previous generations of the system could technically do these things, the quality of the outputs was much lower than that produced by an average human. The new model is much better, often startlingly so.”
For example, here’s part of the biography it wrote for me:
Gehrz… has a significant presence on social media, where he regularly shares his thoughts on the history of Christianity, Pietism, and Christian higher education, as well as reflections on his teaching and scholarship. He has a blog called "The Pietist Schoolman" which is followed by many scholars, students and educators.
Gehrz is a highly respected and accomplished scholar in his field, and his work has had a significant impact on the study of the history of Christianity and Christian higher education. He is also a dedicated and passionate teacher, who is committed to fostering intellectual curiosity and critical thinking in his students.1
Nothing wrong with that, right?
Except that the existence of such a chatbot — which, in time, is bound to get more accurate and more convincing than it proved itself above — raises all sorts of problems for those of us who teach, particularly at liberal arts colleges and in disciplines that claim to hone students’ abilities as writers. When some students already pay other people to write their college essays, what flood of plagiarism will ChatGPT unleash? Should we even bother assigning such work if we can’t tell the difference between a B essay written by human or artificial intelligence?
Still, for every person who has warned of the death of the college essay, there’s someone else welcoming our new computer overlords, come to liberate us from vapid assignment design and rejuvenate college writing instruction.
As usual, I find myself in the middle. I’m not overly worried about ChatGPT (or whatever comes after it) as a threat to how I teach writing. I think this hullabaloo could even push us to do better at articulating and cultivating the skill set that comes with a liberal arts education.
But this application of artificial intelligence does poses a threat to departments like mine, one that goes far beyond its potential to help students cheat.
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