Embrace it or reject it? Academics disagree about ChatGPT

From suggestions to ban ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot, to adjusting curricula and assessment formats, the academic community in North Africa, as in other parts of the world, disagrees about how the higher education sector should respond to the latest text tool.

Whereas some academics embrace and support the development – and equate its usefulness to that of a calculator – others support universities that have prohibited its usage, possibly because of fears that students and academics may use it to cheat on written assignments or in writing academic papers.

In fact, some proponents view opposition to ChatGPT to opposition against progress, calling on institutions and academics to equip students with skills and the ethical mindset to operate in an AI environment.

They argue that this is possible by putting in place guidelines to adapt to the technology, as well as redesigning policies for academic integrity.

ChatGPT – in full, the Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer – is an artificial intelligence text generator released by OpenAI in November 2022.

AI natural language processing, or NLP, systems, such as ChatGPT, can generate coherent and informative text, ranging from a few sentences or paragraphs to an entire essay in response to specific prompts from the user, such as the topic, length or writing style, according to a 25 January editorial article, ‘Using AI to write scholarly publications’.

Engineer Waleed Gashout, president of the Private Higher Education Students’ Organisation in Libya, told University World News that ChatGPT has not yet reached Libya, but it is available in other North African countries.

ChatGPT is unavailable in 45 countries, including four countries from North Africa, namely Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. However, there are several technical ways of accessing it in blocked countries.

The double-edged sword

Abdellah Benahnia, a part-time international researcher and professor at the Superior Institutions of Science and Technology, an associate college of Cardiff Metropolitan University in Casablanca, Morocco, spoke to University World News, summarising the opposing positions.

Some scholars think that the use of ChatGPT may discourage learners and researchers from doing honest research and in-depth investigation, leading to academic misconduct.

But others, according to Benahnia, advocate that ChatGPT is only an application or a tool which students should be trained to use properly.

Professor Ahmed Attia, the head of faculty affairs at the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli, Libya, is part of the concerned group.

He told University World News that it may create a threat to academics, and necessitate re-designing policy for academic assessments.

“While an internet search identifies already existing text, ChatGPT draws upon available information and generates a unique response to multi-part and complex questions along with producing original text about virtually any subject in response to a prompt, including articles and essays which plagiarism-detection software, now in use, fails to catch,” Attia explained.

“Perhaps using oral assessments will help in figuring out the actual knowledge students have acquired. Moreover, the use of ChatGPT in research articles opens up challenges for the proper use of software for research purposes,” Attia added.

“I totally agree [with those who say] that ChatGPT should be banned from being used in academic work.

“However, the technology’s development will create a change in the traditional teaching system, and [may] even be integrated in academic aspects,” said Attia.

According to him, no action has yet been undertaken to ban ChatGPT in Libyan higher education but the launch of an academic discussion group, ‘ChatGPT in academic writing: Is it a threat or an opportunity?’ will create a forum for academics to discuss the phenomenon.

A wake-up call for curriculum change?

Software engineer Ahmed Alghali, a member of the technical team at Google Developer Student Clubs at the University of Khartoum in Sudan, told University World News that universities in North Africa “must announce a ban on using the software for the production of any written work or presentations”.

Alghali, like Attia, envisages a change in the type of assessments that will be used.

“Universities must also re-envisage assessments from one-time answers to iterative portfolio development, along with using in-person tests and oral examinations when possible,” Alghali said.

“Universities must shift curriculums to higher levels of critical thinking, ethical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and future-oriented solution – a creation to enable students to understand the scope of their careers and enhance their ability to work on different problems with variety of solutions,” Alghali added.

“AI-generated bots can never solve problems without new data. Therefore, students must be driven to make these bots solve problems rather than making the universities’ system useless,” Alghali pointed out.

Guidelines for ChatGPT use

Professor Ahmed El-Gohary, the former president of the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology in Alexandria, told University World News that AI is posing challenges for the education system, but potential positives should also be considered.

“Those challenges are multifaceted, including and not limited to ethical considerations, self-development, critical and individual assessments, small group learning. They make use of innovations and the related enhancements of quality of life,” El-Gohary said.

“Universities in North Africa should not ban the use of chatbots … Why? I do believe that chatbots are useful as the calculators,” El-Gohary added.

“What is needed is to put in guidelines for their usage. Discussion and debate about limitations [are necessary], advantages and possible disadvantages (if any) should be initiated among all the stakeholders. Meanwhile, academics should start embracing ChatGPT in their pedagogies and educational tactics,” El-Gohary said.

“My personal view is that AI will be another supportive tool for the learning process and will support individual learning rather than the mass one,” El-Gohary noted.

Innovative assessments

Dr Abdennasser Naji, a former adviser to the minister of higher education, and president of the Morocco-based Amaquen Institute, an education think tank, told University World News: “The prohibition of ChatGPT means opposition to progress.”

“The future is AI and it will be smarter for our universities to encourage the use of the chatbot based on [the use of] AI in routine jobs, and to think about how to mitigate the risk of bad use of this innovation, by imposing on students compliance with ethics standards in order to combat cheating,” Naji said.

“Using in-person tests and oral examinations, along with not using one-time answers-based assignments as possible solutions to face ChatGPT cannot solve the problem, they can simply delay the symptoms,” Naji added.

“Thus, the solution is to concentrate assessments on innovative responses and not on tests with simple elements with responses that can easily be guessed by the machine,” Naji noted.

“In the future, the world of work will be divided into two parts: jobs exerted by machines and jobs exerted by humans. The latter will require AI and machine learning-ready graduates with high skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving abilities,” Naji pointed out.

Transforming teaching and assessments

Engineer Waleed Gashout, said ChatGPT should not be banned, because this is “part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and this is the future that we must deal with, not [work] against”, said Gashout.

“It is impractical to ban or prevent the use of ChatGPT. The academic community will have to accept that AI tools are and will continue to be used. AI tools are here to stay. They will improve and become increasingly important across disciplines,” he added.

“Everything has benefits and harms, so we have to get this benefit then reduce its risks by awareness as well as evaluating how problematic ChatGPT is for achieving learning outcomes,” Gashout suggested.

“ChatGPT has no capacity for critical thinking as it, essentially, only compiles information readily available online to form a response to a given prompt. Its threat could be bypassed by redesigning assignments to be based on creativity,” he pointed out.

“Why not create auxiliary applications that create algorithms to combat misleading or unwanted content?” he asked.

“We might also need to either make assessments ‘ChatGPT-proof’ or find ways to incorporate ChatGPT in helping students to build new skills.”

In response to the launch of ChatGPT, Gashout noted that online tools capable of predicting text have been written by a human or a machine, based on word choice and sentence structure. These have already emerged, including AICheatCheck and AI text classifier.

“I think universities should re-evaluate their teaching mission and change their work mechanism and develop it in line with AI, which sweeps all fields, and [they should] move away from the classic role that they have been playing for years,” Gashout pointed out.

“Libyan universities and most universities in North Africa focus on offering students degrees, not learning, and awarding an academic qualification, not on a distinctive skill needed for the labour market.

“Thus, to adapt to the challenges of the age of AI and machine learning, we must first match the requirements of the labour market with university graduates and, then, include AI as a subject in the curricula for both graduate and post-graduate studies,” Gashout concluded.

Dr Mosab Hamad, a departmental head in the faculty of health sciences at the Elsheikh Abdallah Elbadri University in Sudan, also do not think ChatGPT should be banned, but rather that student's intellectual capabilities and ethical values be developed.

Professor Hamed Ead, who is based in the faculty of science, Cairo University, and is the former cultural counsellor at the Egyptian Embassy in Morocco, told University World News that, although ChatGPT, as a free AI model, may threaten academic integrity and the learning process for writing, “we must not ban it, but embrace it and protect it from being used to cheat in education and research tasks”.

“Universities should not escape from the race of the future or its technologies, but must work on producing future-ready graduates through a suite of holistic education programmes, which focus on developing students’ capabilities in ethical and professional use of modern technologies for complex problem-solving through creative and critical thinking,” Ead pointed out.