Artificial Intelligence, usually known as AI, is a daily feature in the headlines. But media sensationalism aside, it is already having practical effects and the academic world has been one of the first places to feel its impact. But is AI a good or a bad thing for students?
It’s important to be clear on what AI is, and what it isn’t. The technology is still a long way from Artificial General Intelligence, the sentient, human-like, consciousness of movies. However, there are a number of task-specific AIs that rapidly analyze and adapt to the data it receives. Whether it’s suggesting topics on a social media feed, presenting the apps you might want on your phone, or even driving a car, we are already using these task-specific AIs every day.
The one that is most relevant to students is known as a large-language model (LLM). These have absorbed a huge amount of data, usually large parts of the public internet. And can quickly process that in response to a natural language prompt. LLM AIs have already shown they can answer advanced questions, including passing medical exams. So, inevitably, many students turn to AI to help with coursework.
How AI can be a friend
It’s already done the work
Writing isn’t really a big part of being a student, it’s actually the research and thinking that goes into the writing. And AI can cut all that out. An LLM AI already has the data and research, and its computational power allows it to quickly process it in the format you want, even if it’s a 3,000-word essay.
For a time-pressured student, having an AI to hand can save a lot of time.
It’s usually a pretty good writer
Many argue about the quality of AI writing. Often seen as functional, AIs have struggled with creative writing. But this is not a problem for most students, who need neutral, considered, and grammatically correct writing.
In many ways, because it avoids emotive language, allusions, and tangents, AIs are ideal student essayists!
AI is accessible
As it has entered the mainstream, there are more and more AI models available, both free and low cost. But accessibility is about more than just price. AI is infinitely patient, for a student struggling with a topic, or who might face language barriers or even disability, an AI is always there.
Even the most patient professor might start showing signs of frustration being asked to explain things repeatedly. An AI will just go on all day.
Why AI might be a foe
There are ethical difficulties
Students are expected to uphold academic ethics, one of the most important is not to plagiarize. Unfortunately, AI writing is, basically, plagiarism: the models work by absorbing huge amounts of data and re-writing it. And AI writing is not your own work, in exactly the same way as getting a friend to write an essay, it is seen as academic cheating.
If caught using an AI, the academic penalties can be severe, students may risk grades being reduced, or even expulsion.
AI does not think critically
Despite its name, AI is not very intelligent. They perform a specific function very well, but nothing else. When writing, they synthesize related writing and re-present it. However, it does not critically analyze the information it has found, or make deductions (unless it has found that deduction elsewhere).
Critical thinking is a vital part of student essays. In subjects where there might be limited material available, or knowledge advances rapidly, an AI may be out-of-date or unable to reconcile different sources correctly.
You don’t learn
Writing an essay might seem a chore that comes after you have done the learning. But actually, writing is a key part of the learning process. Writing an assignment or essay is not just about repeating facts. It forces you to engage with a topic, you have to organize your thoughts and arguments, you build confidence in the topic and the ability to build on your knowledge.
Multiple research studies have shown how important working with your knowledge is. Delegating all that work to an AI might save time, but comes at a big cost.
Consider AI as a tool
It is better to think of AI as a tool, and then consider how that tool is best used. New technology often divides opinion. Even the humble pocket calculator was banned from the classroom in many places because it was felt children simply wouldn’t learn math. Today, though, calculators are instead a tool that empowers children to learn far more advanced math.
When you think about how AI works, some uses make themselves apparent. A common example is to use it as a research tool, and many see it as a powerful search engine, saving the effort of manually sorting through the results provided by Google or Bing.
Others use it almost as a tutor, harnessing its power to understand questions and then provide personalized answers.
And you might even ask an AI to write an essay that you can then critique. It’s a great way to practice your critical thinking, and because it’s not been written by a person, you don’t have to worry about upsetting anyone!
AI is still a relatively new technology, and quite polarizing. Like any technological advance, opinion will eventually settle, and it seems inevitable that AI, or more likely multiple AIs, will be a part of our lives, both work and leisure.
Like the calculator before, we should think about the tool AI will become. Yes, it can — and will — be used to cheat but most people will use it positively, including to become better students and researchers. We do not abandon tools because they can be misused, but instead strive to understand both their power and their shortcomings, so we can use them effectively, taking the same approach with AI is the best way to leverage its power.