Proper use of chatbots opens up a new world for students

Artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots like ChatGPT have taken the world by storm. In the higher education environment, many students find them useful, but also warn that awareness of proper use is crucial to combat cheating.

Consolation Mangena, a geomatics student specialising in land surveying at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University in Gweru, is a developer working to solve societal problems through the possible attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) using maps, technology and applying remote sensing techniques.

Mangena started using the AI chatbot ChatGPT in March 2023 after he saw it trending on social media, which made him curious to explore the technology.

In an interview with University World News, the student said the power of this chatbot made him want to apply it in his studies because it can simplify the most difficult concepts he would have failed to understand in lectures. Mangena said he uses ChatGPT to research upcoming topics to simplify information he cannot understand.

He said the development of ChatGPT surprised him because he never believed that this was possible as he finds it highly intelligent. When the American artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI developed ChatGPT, Mangena added, he told himself: “Now true innovation begins.”

Poor connectivity problematic

He is excited about the benefits the chatbot offers students. “It’s like having a personal assistant. l no longer have to learn just to pass, but I learn to understand and master the concepts. Also, as a developer, the introduction of this powerful AI model made me learn a lot and come up with so many projects that target the SDGs. This chatbot made me gain confidence in all the project ideas that l had because it could show me that they are feasible and what the best approach is,” he said.

“This chatbot is like an upgraded version of a developer because, with it, the work is efficient; ideas are unlimited. l am now working on a chatbot named EESS (Eagle Eye Survey Solutions). This technology is aimed at the geomatics profession.”

However, Mangena said people in Zimbabwe are restricted from using ChatGPT due to poor connectivity. “Without internet, you cannot communicate with it, which is a disadvantage to users.”

Mangena also said ChatGPT can lead to cheating, especially at universities, if students are not made aware of the downside of relying on AI too much. This includes making them aware of the repercussions of plagiarism. But the problems associated with cheating must not be used to limit students from using ChatGPT.

Instead, there must be awareness of its good and responsible use and universities can use plagiarism-checking tools like Turnitin to monitor the work of students, he added.

People should keep up with technology

Mangena said universities that restrict students from using AI are like parents restricting their children from using a mobile phone just because they are trying to protect them from the internet. “The fact is, on the internet there is good and bad content; what is needed is for parents to teach their children how to access good information and then figure out ways to protect them from the internet,” he said.

“ChatGPT is like an upgraded version of Google Search; you use it for research purposes. So, for me, restricting it means people are refusing to develop because more and more technologies will come. That’s just how it is, it’s the technology world.”

He started using chatbots in primary school but said that these were rule-based and required a lot of data to train their algorithms for them to act similarly to humans, which was very tiresome.

“[The chatbots] l first knew are those interactive business bots which are integrated with social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. This was my first prototype project in Chatbot technology. l designed it from scratch using DialogFlow, Twilio, and WhatsApp and named it Victor. My aim was to automate business activities in Zimbabwe. The user selects a specific order and gets more info about the product, up to the point where he or she can click to buy it,” he said.

Chatbots open up a new world

Letwin Pondo, Image provided

Letwin Pondo, another surveying and geomatics student at Midlands State University in her fourth year, told University World News ChatGPT has opened a new world of learning but, if misused, it can lead to students becoming “empty vessels”.

Pondo said the chatbot aids education, directing people to the information they are in search of faster than search engines. She said it must be embraced and added as an educational tool.

Pondo is the co-founder of African Surveyors Connect, the national point of contact for Women in the Geospatial Space, the administrator of the Zimbabwe Institute of Geomatics’ secretariat, and co-leader of the Volunteer Community Surveyor Programme – a branch of the International Federation of Surveyors.

Looking at where the world is going and how data volumes are increasing daily, AI is definitely needed for efficiency in interpretation, sorting, analysing or even deriving patterns in data, Pondo said.

“I use it for research and as a plug-in in QGIS – software used in geospatial analysis and cartography. It is a useful tool, especially for research. It decreases time spent searching web articles and facts, suggestions, and so on. However, like any other AI chatbot, there comes a time when it reaches its limit and then you need to chip in and put your brain to work. Not everything it gives you might be correct, but it will not stop responding to any question you type. At some point, you need to go deep and confirm your gathered facts and make sure they are real,” Pondo said.

Verification is crucial

“If I need, maybe, a collection of articles on flood response using spatial analysis, it will list them, so I know where to focus, but you have to cross-check and revise. I’d say it gives you a heads-up, a starting point, and some randomly scattered ideas, but you’ll need to refine them.”

On the downside, because ChatGPT is a generative AI, it is capable of creating and writing articles. With the proper skill set on how to prompt it, it can be used to draft an entire article without much input from the user, thus encouraging cheating by students.

Donald Mutasa Mhlanga, a third-year in applied physics at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, said he started using ChatGPT around October 2022 and sees it as an advance in human technology and AI civilisation. He deems it “a portal for clever cheaters”, adding that some university staff members are ignorant of the technology.

“It can be installed on a smart gadget, I can even link it to my smartwatch, connect it over my augmented reality glasses, and cheat during an examination. So, if a gadget is brought to an exam environment, it must be removed,” said Mhlanga who is currently serving as the 2022 and 2023 Global Space Apps mentor, part of the NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge.

He said that, where civilisation is standing now, the use of AI should not be restricted. “Students must be exposed to AI intensely. This will not promote cheating or any other mischievous work but gives programmers the chance to develop more regenerative formulas that counter misuse of chatbots and AI-based applications.”

Lazy students suffer during exams

Njabulo Mathebula, Image provided

Njabulo Mathebula, a student in agriculture and plant production at the University of Limpopo in South Africa, said she was introduced to ChatGPT in March 2023 and uses it only to confirm her activities or assignments. She said it has really been helping her, and she now always passes with a minimum grade of 75%.

Contrary to some of the other students’ views, she thinks the use of AI must be restricted at university.

“Students are becoming lazy and they are always procrastinating when it comes to doing their schoolwork because they know that chatbots will do the work for them. I have come to realise that students pass only assignments, but they do not pass exams or tests because they cannot use chatbots during examinations,” she said.

Brian Phiri, Image provided

Zimbabwean student Brian Phiri who is pursuing an online degree in computer science through the University of the People based in the US, said ChatGPT enables students to be multifaceted. However, restriction is necessary.

“In order for more fulfilling learning experiences, I think it should be restricted. Learning must be kind of like how you had to learn how to multiply mentally before using a calculator in high school. You cannot just jump to the end result without taking the time to focus on the building blocks,” he said. “There are already measures in place to do away with cheating, such as GPTZero.”