It was the fall of 2022. Assignments were piling up. Winter exams were looming. University students in the UAE were working into the late hours of the night on submissions, as usual; academic libraries extended their hours, and group mates huddled together in a race to the deadline.
Then, on November 20, an unexpected entrant joined the fray: ChatGPT - an Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot that could write just about anything you asked it. It found a ready recipient in the desperate audience of students preparing frantically for the December final exam season.
Eight months later, ChatGPT has grown in influence, with students using it for different assignment tasks and educators working to deal with questions on how to regulate its use.
In some cases, ChatGPT is used to create entire assignments - which is plagiarism. With no reliable way to find out whether an assignment is human or AI-generated other than to use an AI tool to check this, uncovering ChatGPT’s uncontrolled influence on students’ education is becoming more and more important.
We talked to UAE university students and experts to understand how ChatGPT is affecting student work, and the effects it has on education and young brain health.
Can ChatGPT compete with students' own work?
Students hold the opinion that ChatGPT cannot write assignments better than them. Amaan Siddiqui, a 21-year-old International Studies student at the American University of Sharjah, said that using ChatGPT for completing introductory research does not make assignments better, but is something he does mainly to save time. “ChatGPT can only respond to the prompts you’re giving it… it’ll give you something very focused, and that’s not always good, because maybe you want to form connections across disciplines.”
ChatGPT can only respond to the prompts you’re giving it… it’ll give you something very focused, and that’s not always good, because maybe you want to form connections across disciplines.”
Indeed, according to Sana Sayed, a senior instructor at the American University of Sharjah’s Department of English, this is a problem because university work mixes different subjects and fields together.
That’s not the only thing ChatGPT struggles with. Middlesex University Dubai student Thenura Samararatne points out that ChatGPT isn’t trained on any information after September 2021. “If I was thinking of using ChatGPT as a way to finish my assignments, I probably wouldn't be getting the most updated or complete information.”
Siva Nanda Rajesh, a freshman at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), agreed, saying that the quality of assignments worsens when using ChatGPT. “ChatGPT can only provide you with a basic structure and a very generic answer that evidently shows that it’s written by a very basic source. It’s very different from the kind of analysis a university student would have.”
ChatGPT can only provide you with a basic structure and a very generic answer that evidently shows that it’s written by a very basic source. It’s very different from the kind of analysis a university student would have.
While students agreed that ChatGPT does not really make their assignments better, educators took a more complex stance.
What educators have to say?
Dr Neslihan Bilikozen, Assistant Professor at the Department of English in the American University of Sharjah, is researching the effect that AI has on students’ creativity and critical thinking.
In an email interview, she said that some students have gotten better grades when using ChatGPT for some assignments, but many students did not see such changes. “When students use ChatGPT as a tool to enhance their understanding and writing skills, it can positively affect the quality of their assignments. However, relying solely on ChatGPT can lead to students submitting assignments that may contain false information, fabricated sources, and a socially biased perspective. Such assignments are usually identifiable by their lack of deep engagement with the assigned tasks.”
Relying solely on ChatGPT can lead to students submitting assignments that may contain false information, fabricated sources, and a socially biased perspective. Such assignments are usually identifiable by their lack of deep engagement with the assigned tasks...
Similarly, Sayed told Gulf that she asks her students not to use ChatGPT for producing entire assignments, not only to avoid plagiarism, but also because of the bad quality of work.
“I told them … ChatGPT produces underdeveloped paragraphs and fails to integrate specific examples.”
What is long-term impact?
Looking to the future, Dr Vishal Pawar, a specialist neurologist based in Dubai, points out the possibility that what the left-brain does (actions focusing on detail orientation, sequential and logical reasoning) can become redundant with the excess use of AI. Since we expect to rely more and more on the intelligence of programs like ChatGPT in the future, we need to find out what effects this could have on our own intellect.
Sayed said that ChatGPT, when used the right way, is a helpful learning aid for things like preliminary research and coming up with ideas. “I believe ChatGPT is a glorified version of Wikipedia. It has benefits such as providing quick information, but also has drawbacks, if students don't apply their critical thinking skills when using it.”
Dr Bilikozen agrees that when students are taught how to use AI, avoid plagiarism, and take control of their own learning, ChatGPT can become a tool to enhance students’ education through “rapid access to vast amounts of information, assistance with revision, editing, and personalised learning support.” However, it’s not all good news.
I believe ChatGPT is a glorified version of Wikipedia. It has benefits such as providing quick information, but also has drawbacks, if students don't apply their critical thinking skills when using it
Dr Pawar said that ChatGPT should be a supportive resource that works in tandem with human learning without replacing it, explaining that students should also complete challenging tasks that encourage critical thinking.
Will AI make people dumber?
The worry that overly relying on technology can cause weakened brain functions - like learning, memory, and concentration - is not new, says Dr Pawar. Citing research studies published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, he noted that even using mobile phones too much could cause mental exhaustion and weakened brain functions.
Still, when people mention the problems with using ChatGPT in education, one of the main points has been that there is no harm in letting students use it for basic tasks to save time so that they can focus more on higher-functioning tasks. However, some experts don’t agree with this.
Dr Bilikozen has found as part of her ongoing research that when students rely on AI to carry out even the simplest tasks, they can have problems developing their own critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Dr Pawar agrees and refers to this - neurologically speaking - as “use it or lose it”, pointing out “if we don’t use a part of the brain, we tend to lose that particular function”. Dr Bilikozen adds: “For young minds with developing cognitive functions, engaging in seemingly less important tasks can establish a foundation for higher order thinking skills and better preparation for handling more complex tasks. Neglecting these so-called basic tasks could have enduring consequences on their learning journey.”
She stressed how important it is for students to do their own introductory research, saying that it comes with very important benefits like knowing how to properly deal with information and apply critical thinking to it. Even something as basic as writing titles manually, she says, increases creativity and important communication skills.
“These foundational skills lay the groundwork for tackling more intricate assignments with confidence and a depth of understanding,” she says.
The effect ChatGPT can have on students’ ability to do more complicated assignment tasks is only a side effect of the main problem: overusing ChatGPT can make it harder for students to learn because it may make it harder for them to stay focused and think. ChatGPT was released just 8 months ago, so there is no direct evidence on the long-term effects of overusing it.
Still, research in the field of technology does show worsened human thinking capabilities when we start to automate our brain’s memory and learning tasks. “Overusing ChatGPT may potentially weaken neural pathways associated with critical thinking and problem solving, which are related to the frontal lobe of the brain,” says Dr Pawar. ““The most important cause of memory issues I see in the clinic is lack of attention.”
Overusing ChatGPT may potentially weaken neural pathways associated with critical thinking and problem solving, which are related to the frontal lobe of the brain. ..
The many doors of the mind
When talking about ChatGPT’s effects on education, he talks about the doors to our brain’s abilities that lead to learning in students. One of these doors, for example, is the sleep-wake cycle - if it is closed, that is if the student didn’t get enough sleep, they don’t learn well. Significantly, one of these doors is the door of attention: naturally, less attention in students also causes them not to learn well.
When students use ChatGPT’s instant responses to finish tasks without focusing on them, this door of attention may close. In this way, ChatGPT could prove significantly harmful for students’ attention span and learning in the long-term.
Dr Pawar also noted that this idea goes both ways: while not using the brain enough is bad, overusing it can also be harmful. He said that, in contrast, it was very hard for students to find physical research (like books) before the development of technology, and that this caused lack of sleep, stress, and anxiety. When ChatGPT collects data, analyses it, and displays it to the student in a simple way, “[It] reduces torture on the brain.”
AI comes with big promises, but it isn’t yet clear how many of them it can keep and at what cost. The educators, experts and students interviewed all agreed on the one pillar for successful education - the most important part that needs to be maintained in using ChatGPT is the human analysis and creativity that language models struggle with copying. Therefore, when repeatedly using ChatGPT for certain tasks, one must ask themselves whether they want to use their own skills for these tasks - or lose them.