I wish I had ChatGPT when I was in college. But not for the reason you might expect

Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT can be a useful tool to make learning better for everyone.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
Illustration of robot typing on computer with notebooks and sticky notes and office materials on desk
Image: iStock / Getty Images Plus

After nearly three months of testing ChatGPT and its AI chatbot spinoffs, I keep coming back to the same conclusion -- I wish I had this technology in college. 

Here's why. 

Students go to college to develop the skills that will serve them in the longer term and eventually help them land their dream role. And although having the opportunity to even attend college in the first place is great, there is no denying that it is a massive time commitment. 

Full-time college students usually take around 15 credit hours per semester, meaning students spend 15 hours attending class every week, usually distributed among five, three-credit classes. 

Fifteen hours a week might not seem like a lot, but you also have to factor in study time. 

The golden ratio for study to class time in college is 2:1. Using that ratio, a student taking 15 credit hours will study for at least 30 hours a week. Now, if you add the amount of hours the student spends in the classroom with the amount of time spent studying, that comes out to 45 hours per week on school alone. 

That's already more time than your average nine-to-five job. 

Also: This professor asked his students to use ChatGPT. The results were surprising

Students also participate in extracurriculars and internships to become competitive applicants in the job market and graduate programs. An average internship during the school year can take anywhere from 10 to 20 hours, according to Career Employer. If you have an internship that totals 20 hours a week like I did, you are at a whopping 65 hours per week.

On top of that there are personal, everyday, necessary tasks that need to be accomplished, such as laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and more. Mental and physical health activities such as therapy and going to the gym also take up a chunk of a student's day. Time is a very limited resource in college and students have to use it wisely. 

This is where ChatGPT can shine. 

There are plenty of instances in college where time-consuming tasks don't actually add much to your education experience. For example, as a political science and journalism major, I wrote papers on a weekly basis (I wish I was exaggerating). A bulk of my time went to digging across the internet just to find sources for my articles -- a task that taught me nothing. 

Now I know you might be thinking, "How difficult can it be, it's one Google search?", but I wish it were that simple. Most of the time you click on a site and click out, only to repeat that pattern over and over. An AI chatbot connected to the internet, such as Microsoft's new Bing with ChatGPT, would have been a huge time saver. 

To test this theory, I used Bing's AI chatbot to help me find sources for a paper about gasoline effects on the atmosphere. Let me be clear: the chatbot is by no means handing me an A+ written essay.

Bing ChatGPT screenshot
Image: Screenshot by Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

Instead, it is giving me sources to read, analyze, and synthesize into an essay. Even by using the tool, the essay would still be a product of my work entirely. 

The only real change? The chatbot saved me time with background research. 

Also: The new Bing waitlist is long. Here's how to get earlier access

Sure, a student can ask the chatbot to write an essay and then copy and paste it, but the AI isn't smart enough to produce an A+ essay based on one prompt. The results of a student trying to plagiarize in that way would be a low grade regardless. 

Ethan Mollick, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has added AI tools into his curriculum. He assigned students to write an essay using ChatGPT, with at least five prompts.

The results showed that, from using just one prompt, the results were always a mediocre C- essay. However, using different prompts, which provided better instructions, students were able to fine-tune the results. Students who added user knowledge and co-edited the essay with ChatGPT produced the best results. 

"Producing good AI-written material is not actually trivial," says Mollick. "Getting an AI to produce meaningful content requires both topic expertise and skill."

Also: ChatGPT can write code. Now researchers say it's good at fixing bugs, too

And don't forget: there are plenty of websites dedicated to writing and selling essays that students can use to get decent grades. If the fear is that students will plagiarize, the sources and temptation to do so already exists. What stopped me from plagiarizing wasn't a lack of opportunity to, it was my integrity. 

AI chatbots can also be particularly useful in coding classes. If you have ever had to code, you know how frustrating not being able to figure out how the code you wrote is preventing you from having the desired output you want.

In a political data class that required R Studio, I would constantly get stumped on the smallest little thing, and after spending hours trying to figure it out by watching YouTube videos, going back to class notes, Google searching, and more, I would end up having to go to office hours to find my answer. 

Also: How to download YouTube videos for free

With ChatGPT, I could get my answer in seconds and continue with my project -- without losing any quality in my education. 

Think of ChatGPT as a teaching assistant that is always available, even in class. 

If a professor mentions a new concept a student is unfamiliar with during lecture, instead of having to raise their hand in a 100-person lecture hall, which might deter them from even asking in the first place, they can just ask ChatGPT and get a thorough response. A study showed that ChatGPT is a better resource than Google for intermediate or advanced questions that are more convoluted in nature because of the chatbot's ability to provide detailed responses and context to users. 

Also: ChatGPT or Google: Which gives the best answers?

Another way to think of ChatGPT is as a calculator. In advanced math college classes, students are allowed to use calculators in class because being able to apply all the equations correctly to find the correct answer is more important than doing simple operations. 

As Sid Nag, cloud services and technologies analyst at Gartner, previously told ZDNET, "It's like saying, 'Is the use of a calculator going to hinder the quality of people's ability to add one and one plus two?' No.". 

And yet, both primary and secondary education facilities across the country are already taking measures to try and curb the potential negatives of using an AI chatbot. For instance, the New York City Department of Education, the biggest school district in the country, blocked student and teacher access to ChatGPT on its networks. 

If students want to access the technology, regardless of the limitations, they will find a way to, whether at home, on their personal devices, or even through a VPN. Banning something doesn't necessarily make it go away -- shall I point to how well the Prohibition went?

Mollick says that even if he didn't embrace AI in his classroom, since it is everywhere, his students would have still had access to it. And the results of AI assistance in project-idea generation were positive. 

Also: ChatGPT productivity hacks: Five ways to use chatbots to make your life easier

"As a result, the projects this semester are much better than previous pre-AI classes," says Mollick. "This has led to greater project success rates and more engaged teams." 

Blocking students from accessing ChatGPT or other generative AI tools is just a missed opportunity for student growth, especially at the rates that generative AI is predicted to grow. Interest in generative AI because of programs, such as ChatGPT and DALLE-2, has skyrocketed in the past couple of months, as seen by this Google trends graph. 

Generative AI Google trends screenshot

Generative AI search term results for the past five years, starting on February 2018. 

Source: Screenshot by Sabrina Ortiz/ZDNET

With these upwards trends, there is more value in teaching students how to use generative AI tools to fuel their education and their growth than to shield them from it. Redirecting student's curiosity of AI toward ethical, skilled use of the technology will be more valuable for their education in the long run than banning it altogether. 

Even with the limited generative AI tools that are available now, students, particularly college students, will be able to focus their attention to tasks that are more conducive to their learning and self-improvement. I just wish ChatGPT had been there to save me time in college, too.

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