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WMU and Kalamazoo College bring chatbots into the classroom

Close-up photo of a smartphone showing the ChatGPT logo
Matt Rourke/AP
A ChapGPT logo is seen in West Chester, Pa., Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Some students in Kalamazoo are learning a scientific approach to prompt-writing, and others are using AI to help them study.

Josh Moon is an educational technology specialist at Kalamazoo College. I met him at his office in a secluded part of K’s library. Moon types a question into a chatbot.  

It’s about Anakin Skywalker, the antagonist in the Star Wars series, more commonly referred to as Darth Vader. 

“Why did Anakin Skywalker fall to the dark side in Star Wars?” Moon types.

The chatbot spits out six arguments, one of which is that it was the Jedis’ fault Anakin mistrusted them. Moon experiments with chatbots by disagreeing with their responses.

”You know, maybe it wasn’t the Jedis' fault that Anakin mistrusted them," he said.

The chatbot agrees that perhaps Moon is right. Arguably, Anakin’s reasons for going to the dark side is not an issue the world needs to explore. But Moon says there’s value for students in learning to use AI effectively. In his classes, Moon teaches students how to generate prompts. Those are the questions or statements the user has the chatbot respond to. Moon asks students to be specific.

“Tell it things like what tone you want it to respond in, who the audience is going to be,” Moon said.

Moon said this is a useful tool for brainstorming or drafting.

“It’ll make an association that you might not have thought of yourself, to point your own thoughts in a different direction, and that’s one of the ways I think it’s actually useful,” said Moon.

It’s only been a year since Open AI released a demo of Chat GPT. The application soon became a household name and raised lots of questions about chatbots’ place in the world. It hasn’t taken long for the technology to crop up in classrooms, and not just from students using chatbots to write their papers.

“These tools and platforms are emerging quickly, rapidly. So, our response time has to be as quick and as rapid,” said Western Michigan University English professor Brian Gogan.

Gogan taught a class on prompt writing in WMU's fall semester.

"Being able to use generative AI platforms effectively, also equitably and ethically, is going to be the differentiator in a competitive job market for any individual seeking a job," he said.

Gogan said there’s plenty to know about how to write prompts. He asks his students to go beyond playing with the AI, as though it’s a magic eight ball.

In his class, he has students keep logs of the chatbot’s responses.

“Keeping a log like that, tracing multiple inputs and outputs, generations, regenerations, using these platforms, can be a really helpful learning tool for students at any level,” he said.

He also emphasized that since these tools are emerging rapidly, students and teachers are in an exploratory phase with the technology.

Gogan said his class includes undergraduate and graduate students as well as professionals.

Students are also using chatbots to help them study. Cameron Johnson is a senior information systems major at WMU.

“I’ll ask it to summarize documents for me, especially if I don’t understand them," Johnson said. "I’ll use it to give me practice questions when I need to study something and it’s kind of difficult to get more practice questions for it.”

Chatbots can give inaccurate or misleading responses. These are known as hallucinations. But Johnson said he’s not worried. He said he knows enough about the subject that he can spot a bad response. He’s also not worried about bias.

“The responses are based on what you ask of them," he said. "So if you ask it in a specific way, or like in a loaded manner, so to say, it would respond in a similar fashion.”

Johnson said he knows the software gets a bad rap, because of cheating.

“It’s obviously the number one use when you think of using ChatGPT or AI is for generating answers to questions and stuff like that,” he said.

But Johnson said he encourages people to recognize that ChatGPT and other AI can be used to enhance learning.