Experts believe AI chatbots will improve learning, research

Just like their peers across the world, researchers in Nigerian universities have joined the conversation about the use of AI chatbots in higher education institutions.

ChatGPT interacts in a conversational way and its dialogue format makes it possible for it to converse with users intelligently, though it also has a plethora of limitations, including sometimes writing answers that seem to be believable but are outright incorrect. OpenAI says it will continue to make tweaks to it to deploy a more capable system.

In spite of its limitations, ChatGPT has quickly gained worldwide acceptance, reportedly accumulating 57 million monthly active users in its first month of availability and surpassing 100 million active users in January 2023.

The chatbot has found its way through industries, including higher education, where many educators and institutions are apprehensive that its usage among students and academics may stifle innovation. Educators particularly worry about students turning to ChatGPT to help them to complete assignments and projects, thus encouraging cheating. To this end, several higher education institutions across the world have banned ChatGPT.

Whether it is ChatGPT or Bard, Google’s answer to ChatGPT, or Microsoft’s AI-powered Bing, one question is popping up among educators: Are the AI chatbots an educational friend or foe?

Academics weigh in

The Nigerian researchers University World News interviewed believe there is no cause for alarm, encouraging people to look more on the bright side of the emergence of ChatGPT and other AI chatbots.

Professor Francisca Oladipo, an expert in AI at Federal University Lokoja, Kogi State, said people emphasising the negative aspects of AI chatbots are doing so because there is a deep level of distrust in AI tools.

“The objective of computing is to make life easier for users so they can save time and devote efforts to some other things,” Oladipo said. “In this case, the aim of AI chatbots is to make life better for humanity.”

Oladipo said there are lots of computing priorities in today’s world and that AI tools like ChatGPT exist to help people who are doing two or three jobs while studying cope with life.

She said: “It is similar to a parent who, possibly because of the nature of their work, is not able to help their child with homework and, thus, gets a home tutor for the kid. Does that make such a parent bad? No. Rather, the home tutor complements the parent’s work so they can have more time to do other things and boost the family income.

“So, the fears about AI tools negatively impacting education are because the news out there has only been about negative outcomes. Plus, there have been fears that AI will take over some people’s jobs, so the fearmongers will keep dishing out more negative views.”

Regarding the use of AI chatbots in the classroom, Oladipo believes they will help students to be more competitive.

“Students are going to learn new things. Yes, if I ask ChatGPT about a topic and another student asks the same topic, it is likely to produce the same results for us. So, what do I do? I will read my text and customise it the way I want it,” she said.

“In a nutshell, AI chatbots are meant to enhance creativity and not to stall it. So, it is absolutely wrong for institutions and educators to ban its use,” Oladipo added.

Professor Mosto Onuoha, the president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, agreed. He said AI is an innovation and that its usage leads to other inventions.

“We have had milestones in computing, including the World Wide Web. Then Google came and you could ask the search engine anything and it would tell you. Has the use of search tools like Google and Wikipedia stopped innovation? No. So I do not subscribe to the fact that the development of AI chatbots like ChatGPT would stifle innovation,” Onuoha told University World News.

“I think what many are afraid of is that users of AI chatbots now have a short cut, but this was exactly what some said about the emergence of Google and other search engines years ago,” he said.

Onuoha wants educators and HE institutions to embrace the use of AI tools “because some of the problems that have harassed us for long are now being able to be solved”.

“It is a pessimistic view to think students and researchers are going to get lazy and less innovative because they use ChatGPT. What we should be doing at Nigerian institutions is to catch up with these technologies; this is what we are doing at the Nigerian Academy of Science,” he said.

Professor Chidiebere Ugwu, an expert in AI at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, also said ChatGPT and other AI chatbots will help solve problems in academic research. “Innovation does not have to be a stressful process, which is what AI tools have come to solve. They will improve the way we do research and improve the way students learn,” he said.

Approach matters

ChatGPT and other tools should not smother students’ creativity, said Ugwu, who has done extensive research on machine learning.

“A good student would make efforts to customise whatever results they get from ChatGPT and not just copy and paste. I am convinced that ChatGPT will improve the proficiency of a studious student,” he said. “It is the same way internet search engines like Google work. Hardworking students have improved their knowledge using the tool.”

But, as for lazy students who would rather copy and paste answers from ChatGPT or other AI chatbots, Ugwu said there should be checks put in place to penalise them. “AI tools should not be tools for lazy students,” he said. “With the right approach, ChatGPT and other AI chatbots can be effective teaching tools for both educators and students.”