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Taught By Robots?

Urooj Hussain discusses the potential impact of AI dependence on critical thinking skills in the classroom.
Published 28 Feb, 2024 12:02pm

One cannot halt progress because of the fear of the unknown. Every time we have done so, it has resulted in stifled innovation, missed opportunities and a failure to adapt to the evolving needs of society. But what happens when the unknown is so unpredictable that there seems to be no right or wrong answer? This is what educators throughout the world are facing as Generative AI becomes a tool for students in classrooms. For context, a Google report has shown that search trends for ChatGPT decline during the summer break season and start increasing in August/September when the school term starts. The reality is that globally and in Pakistan, the use of ChatGPT for assignments and theses is becoming unstoppable.

Although AI can be used for human ease, to help customise assignments based on individual learning needs, give instant feedback and provide creative methods of learning, it can also cause a decline in critical thinking.

So where does one draw the line between students using AI to search for better ideas, enhance their work and organise their thoughts, to becoming so dependent on the tool that it leaves little room for individual creativity and thought? This article explores these questions while taking into account perspectives from educators and students in Pakistan.

Does simplified learning undermine competency?
The photocopier made it redundant to physically copy documents, and the internet and Wikipedia made it redundant to consult huge encyclopaedias. Online learning platforms, coupled with video lectures and interactive tutorials, have made it redundant to attend in-person classes for certain educational pursuits. All this has made learning ‘easier’, and although every generation has felt that the succeeding one has had life easier, none of these changes have hindered the output of students at universities. Global progress did not stop just because learning became easier. So why should AI be any different?

Yet, some would argue that it is different. Gen AI can produce human-like text, responses and ideas. It is self-learning and doesn’t always output what is in its training data set. It can engage in open-ended conversations and adapt on the go. This level of personalisation (that too instantly) surpasses the capabilities of previous technologies. This kind of ease for students is unprecedented and has implications on the learning process.

Here is what Usman Qayam, Adjunct Faculty in Management Sciences, had to say about this. “I have a wide range of students from all over the country who attend classes at SZABIST. Depending on their schooling background, their written English skills can vary significantly. What I have observed is a trend among students to use ChatGPT for assignment submissions throughout the academic year, producing work characterised by impeccable grammar and tone. However, during presentations and exams where ChatGPT is not accessible, their performance tends to be sub-par, impacting their overall grades. I advocate a mindful approach among students regarding using AI, emphasising its role as a tool to enhance existing skills rather than a means to complete assignments. Over-dependency on tools like ChatGPT in constructing sentences can inadvertently lead to a sense of callousness in how individuals present their thoughts, diminishing the value of thoughtful expression.”

The value of the struggle:
As outdated as it may sound, one cannot deny that there is some value in the struggle inherent to the learning process. The journey of dealing with concepts, overcoming challenges and persevering through difficulties contributes to the acquisition of knowledge, as well as to the development of essential skills such as problem-solving and resilience. In a well-balanced environment, the struggle is not intended to be a hindrance; it is something that ultimately results in the development of well-rounded, competent individuals who understand the importance of self-sufficiency and critical thinking.

Speaking to Danish Ejaz, Visiting Faculty at SZABIST, I gained some insights on how adapting coursework can help bring this healthy struggle into the classroom. “I give my students cases that are real-world, local to Pakistan, and as close as possible to real time. Assignments where they intuitively have to think about how to answer and which require a certain amount of human subjectivity in their analysis. I do this to minimise dependence on AI and actually give them a chance to add their own thoughts to their assessments.”

The question is, do Gen Z students see the same value in the struggle that educators do? Speaking to a few students, opinions were divided. “I only use ChatGPT to summarise my work into easily manageable bullet points. I don’t use it for assignments because it outputs text in an extremely generic manner which is very easy for teachers to spot. Plus, I want my work to be my own,” says an MBA student. There are also students who prefer to use ChatGPT as an easy way out, as another MBA student explained. “College assignments are not the same as real-world problems. It is homework that we need to do, plus a lot of teachers just want the assignment submitted in order to tick a box. So I would rather use AI to make life easier. After all, that is what it’s for right? I take the output and put it into an online text modifier tool to avoid any plagiarism watch-outs and submit it.”

Resistance is futile:
Although we still do not have all the answers when it comes to AI becoming an integrated part of student life, the only thing we can do is adapt to it. According to Umair Saeed, Advisor Board of Faculty, SZABIST and Visiting Faculty IoBM, “Generative AI is a deeply intertwined part of life and an inevitability from which we cannot escape. The successful workforce of tomorrow is learning how to use AI today. I encourage students to use ChatGPT wherever possible. However, I level the playing field by stating that they should all use the tool and I then evaluate each student based on who utilised it in the best and most efficient manner. At this stage, most Generative AI is only as good as the humans who prompt it.”

Another question arises in terms of equity and access. The availability of technology and reliable internet access can be a barrier for some students. Homework assignments that rely on ChatGPT may exacerbate existing inequalities as not all students have equal access to the same resources. For example, is it fair to pit a student who has access to paid AI tools against one who cannot afford it?

The only thing we can be sure of is that the methods of evaluating student skill sets are going to be in constant flux for a long time to come.

Urooj Hussain is Director Group Strategy and Planning, Brainchild Communications Pakistan.