Staff, faculty & students see positive uses for OpenAI


Aidan Bearor and Isabel Dreher, Staff

Even with use of ChatGPT being strongly discouraged on college campuses across the country, there is some consensus among UNH students, faculty and staff that it can have positive applications. ChatGPT, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) released late last year, allows users to provide a prompt and receive specific answers or explanations on nearly any subject, from coding to foreign verb conjugations.

On January 31, Michael Blackman, dean of students, sent an email to the student body condemning the use of ChatGPT and similar Artificial Intelligences (AIs) in an academic setting and declaring it to be in violation of UNH’s academic honesty policies. But ChatGPT could benefit a college community by helping to quickly find and explain accurate information about topics students may be struggling to understand. 

Blackman said that the intention of the email was to be upfront with students.

“This is a new thing, and I could genuinely see a student not being sure to what extent this is plagiarism,” he said. 

“I think it’s really interesting to think about what sort of potential (it has) for doing tasks that are fairly routine,” said Jennifer Spindel, an assistant professor of political science. “I asked (ChatGPT) at one point, ‘pretend a student has asked for a grade bump, please write an email in response,’ and it wrote a fantastic email. It was polite but firm, said please reference the syllabus, everything I wish I would have written in that scenario. So I wonder if things like that might actually be useful, to have a sort of standard response for some of these more routine-type scenarios.”

Blackman agrees that there could be positive uses. 

“I think for students, depending on the class you’re taking, there’s a lot of ways to use OpenAI to generate ideas that won’t become your final answer… a starting point,” Blackman said.  

Although ChatGPT is novel now, Spindel pointed out that some of the technology we rely on today seemed just as disruptive when it came out.

“I wouldn’t want (ChatGPT) to replace the independent thinking that we hope people are doing in classes,” Spindel said. “I can imagine in 10, 15 years, all of us looking back and saying ‘well this was no different then spellcheck,’ which people railed against when it first came out because no one would learn how to spell anymore. They’re kind of right, but they’re kind of not, and so I wonder if this panic will sort of be seen in a similar light.”

Blackman agreed, recalling the release of Wikipedia in his undergraduate days. 

“Similar to how Wikipedia came out when I was in college. Faculty were really freaked out we would just copy Wikipedia entries and submit it,” he said. “But then (they) embraced it as a way for people to get basic knowledge on a topic and using that as a launch pad to go find primary sources,” Blackman said.

“It’s not this big anti-ChatGPT movement for UNH. I’ve been impressed with my few conversations with students about it,” he said. 

Ultimately, whether the technology infringes upon the academic honesty policy of the university is up to the context and extent of its usage. It can be utilized as a starting point to explore ideas without being flagged for plagiarism. 

Spindel has been aware of ChatGPT since shortly after it came out in November of 2022, thanks to a student informing her of its existence. 

“I was able to make an account and play around with it a little bit,” she said. “I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what it can do.”

Blackman emphasized that faculty is being encouraged to get acquainted with the interface, and that the tool will likely have classroom implementations. Consequences for using ChatGPT to generate entire responses will be dealt with the same way the UNH handles other plagiarism, per their Academic Honesty Policy, and may result in failure of a course.

“I think it’s really early to tell how it is best utilized in a classroom, but we encourage faculty to think about ways to integrate it in a class where it makes sense to do so,” he said. “The only thing we’re trying to combat is students using it to generate responses to assignments and then pretending it is theirs.”

Spindel agrees, and has assigned projects that involve exploring ChatGPT’s capabilities in her higher level classes. In her seminar this semester, students will have to use ChatGPT to write a speech from the perspective of a president responding to an attack on the nation. 

“We’ll compare that to actual speeches by actual presidents, so FDR after Pearl Harbor, George W. Bush after 9/11, and see what are the differences in style, tone and substance, just to get a sense of how the tool might be used,” said Spindel. 

“I think that the base speech that it makes will be fine,” she said. “I think if students then take the time to ask ChatGPT to refine its speech, to emphasize certain parts or de-emphasize others, that it might start to get pretty good.”

Outside of academic uses, Spindel is interested to see how the use of ChatGPT evolves and how its development affects other search engines. 

“I think it’s a significant step forward in the way that you interact with an AI, because you don’t need any coding background to do it,” she said. “You don’t need any knowledge of computers or even the internet, you can just talk to it like you would a person. So that I think really lowers the barrier to being able to use it, and so I can imagine the big tech companies like Google (and) Microsoft trying to mirror that.”

“So instead of saying ‘Ukraine war map,’ you can write to Google, ‘what is the latest map of the war in Ukraine?’ and start to use this more conversational searching on the internet,” Spindel said. “I also wonder if it might be useful for speech writing. If leaders, or whomever, needs to make a speech, can ChatGPT help with things like that?”

Students have also found creative uses for the technology. From establishing a stringent study routine to coding in Python, second year Anthony Miliani is well acquainted with the software.

“This is the future and it would feel like a slap in the face to just ignore it,” he said. 

Milani, a chemistry major, is a firm believer in the technology and its future implications. After being introduced to it around its launch in late November, he has been able to explore its capabilities. 

“I put some advanced chemistry into it,” he said. “Every question was answered 100% correctly. That was an awakening moment for me.” 

Milani is also aware of a lesser-known feature. 

“You can say ‘I want to learn X concept in Y amount of days,’ and it can give you a whole schedule on how to effectively learn the content,” he said. 

“You can use it as a crutch, sure. If you know what you’re doing and what you want it to do, it’s more of a tool than a crutch,” said Milani. “You need to have a valid input or idea before you use it.”

Spindel agrees that ChatGPT doesn’t actually know everything.

I don’t fully understand the back end of ChatGPT, but my understanding is that if it doesn’t know the answer, it guesses. So I think that’s a problem, because it presents a guess as if it were true,” she said.

At the end of the day, Spindel thinks that students who are inclined to cheat will find ways to cheat, whether they’re using ChatGPT or something else.  

“Ways to cheat have always existed,” she said. “We hope that people don’t use them, but this just seems like another option for how to do that.”