‘We’re in an exciting time’: How Manitoba’s educational institutions are dealing with AI-generated assignments

A new AI chatbot — capable of writing a 1,000-word essay about nearly any topic in minutes — is raising eyebrows at Manitoba’s educational institutions.

However, some educators feel that AI-generated writing is more of a learning opportunity for students rather than a cheating method that needs to be banned.

ChatGPT is an open-source chatbot launched by OpenAI in November 2022. Users can have the artificial intelligence-powered algorithm write virtually any type of document through a simple prompt.

Ask ChatGPT to write an essay about the themes of innocence, love, and friendship in The Great Gatsby, and it will quickly comply. Ask it again, and it will write a completely different essay on the same topic.

“It’s definitely what most people are talking about,” said Hannah Gifford, Academic Integrity Specialist at Red River College Polytechnic (RRC Polytech).

The post-secondary institution held a seminar on Jan. 17 to answer questions and address concerns from instructors about the emerging technology and its effects on student work.

“We wanted to address some of the conversations … about impacts to education. There’s lots of conversations happening right now,” said Gifford.

Those conversations are also happening at the University of Manitoba (U of M), which held a seminar on the topic for more than 60 faculty members this week as well.

“The session was really a facilitated discussion … to get a sense of what their thoughts and feelings and perspectives were on the use of artificial intelligence in teaching and learning,” said Dr. Brenda Stoesz, Senior Faculty Specialist with the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at the U of M.

“I was really encouraged with the discussion,” said Stoesz. “People shared their thoughts and feelings about this tool, how they’re planning to move forward, how they’re planning to communicate with their students about expectations.”

Stoesz said AI-generated content has been on her radar for quite some time.

“I can see where there’s some anxiety and some fear around how it might be used, but there may also be some possibilities for the future of teaching and learning,” said Stoesz. “So it’s, I think, finding that balance.”

She said the U of M has more seminars planned in the coming weeks.

The University of Winnipeg (U of W) has not held any seminars about ChatGPT yet, but faculty there are discussing it.

“It’s relatively early days, but I am hearing concern amongst faculty members here at the university,” said Tracy Whalen, Associate Dean of Arts and Chair of Academic Misconduct.

Whalen said U of W faculty are worried that students may use the technology to generate essays for assignments, which would actually prevent them from learning.

“We wish for our students to be critical thinkers, and a lot of the critical thinking emerges through writing. These kinds of technologies might jeopardize or threaten that kind of critical thinking,” said Whalen.

She said they do plan on holding information sessions for faculty soon.

“I think they’d like to talk about it, and I’m getting the sense that some members would like more resources. And so I think this is an opportunity for my committee and others I work with to organize either a workshop or a panel,” said Whalen.

U of W faculty are worried that students may use the technology to generate essays for assignments. (Source: OpenAI)

The RRC Polytech seminar focused on the use of new teaching strategies in the classroom.

“It’s our role to support instructors,” said Brenda Mercer, Educational Developer with the Centre of Learning and Program Excellence at RRC Polytech. “So when they come to us with questions about academic integrity … we work to address those.”

Mercer said the response from instructors has been positive.

“We’re trying to encourage instructors to put more creativity into their assignments, so moving away from (having) a lot of writing assignments to more creative things,” she said.

RRC Polytech is also recommending instructors assign specific course resources to students, rather than allowing them to use the entire internet for research.

Administrators at the K-12 school level are also discussing its implications of ChatGPT on student work.

“We’re talking about putting together a professional learning opportunity for our teachers in LRSD in the coming weeks,” said Christian Michalik, superintendent of the Louis Riel School Division.

He said though high school teachers are concerned about the trend, dealing with cheating students is nothing new for them.

“This isn’t the only technology that makes plagiarism a concern in schools, and plagiarism as a concern isn’t a new development,” said. Michalik.

It is a bit of a “wait and see” situation, as the technology is advancing quickly. But Gifford said many instructors at RRC Polytech are excited about the possibilities of applying ChatGPT to their teaching.

“We want to make sure we’re doing it thoughtfully,” she said.

Stoesz agrees, “I think we’re in an exciting time … instructors will gain confidence in navigating this and students will learn when it’s appropriate and not appropriate,” she said.

“I’m quite excited to see what faculty members at the University of Manitoba will do in the coming months.”

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