Varsities tackle AI challenge

Otago business school dean Prof Robin Gauld believes dealing with the impact of new AI writing...
Otago business school dean Prof Robin Gauld believes dealing with the impact of new AI writing software ChatGPT will pose a challenge for the university. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
A new artificial intelligence programme that works like "the internet on steroids" to produce essays on demand has sparked concern at the University of Otago.

Launched in November, chatbot software ChatGPT can churn out responses to all kinds of writing requests — such as university assessments — using information available on the internet, including academic texts.

Deputy academic vice-chancellor Prof Helen Nicholson said the university was collaborating with Australian and Canadian universities to address the chatbot’s impact.

"This new technology is of concern to us and other New Zealand universities because of its potential in triggering new academic integrity issues."

The university would need to find ways to work with the technology in future, as it had done with technology such as calculators.

Any type of plagiarism, including the use of chatbots, was forbidden under university policy, she said.

Otago business school dean Prof Robin Gauld said ChatGPT delivered "fairly extraordinary" results when he asked it to create a 12-week course outline with a week-by-week list of lectures.

After typing in what he wanted, the task, which would usually take him several hours, was completed in just three seconds.

He then asked it to produce a 1500-word essay, which took slightly longer — about five seconds.

As it had the ability to collate information, people would be surprised what the technology was capable of, he said.

"It’s a bit like the internet on steroids."

There was a real risk students, who would have already heard of the chatbot, would use it to write assessments they would then submit as their own work.

However, while the test essay was quite well written, it did have some flaws, especially in providing academic citations.

"You would have to fix it up a bit — the referencing was not quite where it needed to be.

"If a student was to submit that, they probably would get caught out pretty fast."

The accuracy of the software was also not at a level where results could be fully trusted, and users needed to verify the results.

It was just the start of what could be a widespread uptake in the use of AI writing, he said.

While this could be helpful in some circumstances, it could also be harmful.

For the university, the harm would be if students used the chatbot to avoid engaging with the subject in which they were gaining a qualification.

"I think it’s going to really challenge us."

Oral exams and assessments could provide a solution, and he had been thinking about using that format more.

Assessors could check students had a reasonable level of knowledge by asking them to speak for about five minutes on topics from their course, which would not be specified in advance.

This was a solution universities around the globe were talking about, as was the need for a return to pen and paper exams and what weight exams should have in a student’s overall course grade.

All exams had been completed online during the Covid pandemic, although there was now a mixture of formats, he said.

Some digital assessments had very strong digital security, whereas in others, students were simply emailed an exam question and had 24 hours to email back an answer.