Is it to be feared or used? Professors and staff at Cedarville University address ChatGPT in the classroom

By Avonlea Brown

Lined paper and number 2 pencils. 

Those days seemed to be behind students with the switch to online testing, but the increase in AI resources has threatened that luxury. With teacher apprehension towards AI high and students’ attempts to cheat increasing, the return of the little blue test book may be close. 

In November 2022, ChatGPT entered the scene as an AI program that could replicate a person’s thoughts and voice in written form given a specific prompt. Students across the world immediately took advantage of the new technology, using it to answer essay prompts, online discussion posts and create fake sources for research exercises. 

If a student needs a 100-word essay on the printing press, all they need to do is put the prompt into ChatGPT and they get this:

“In the 15th century, a revolutionary invention changed the course of history forever. The printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg, brought a wave of knowledge and literacy to the world. With movable type, books and pamphlets could be produced quickly and on a large scale. Ideas spread like wildfire, challenging the status quo and fueling the Renaissance. The printing press became a catalyst for social and intellectual change, empowering individuals and sparking a thirst for knowledge. It paved the way for the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, forever altering the way information was shared and shaping the modern world we know today.”

The professional tone, grammar and information combine to create a short essay that could pass for a student’s original work, which is exactly how the new technology is used. However, ChatGPT has its limits, and soon teachers caught on that their students were not as eloquent as they seemed. 

Dr. Kevin Sims

Senior Professor of Political Science Kevin Sims first heard about ChatGPT in the spring semester of 2023. It was later confirmed by some of his students that it had already entered classrooms.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, it’s going to be bad because the students are going to use it to cheat,’” Sims said. “And my second thought was closely related to the first. ‘How do we ever control it?’ It’s out there, anybody can access it.”

While some professors learned about AI in the classroom for the first time, others saw it coming. Associate Professor of Theological Studies Jonathan Arnold heard about AI long before it entered classrooms in the form of ChatGPT. 

Dr. Jonathan Arnold

“I had some former colleagues that were working on it who are pretty heavily involved in the artificial intelligence world,” Arnold said. “So I heard about it around 2016 or 17.”

When ChatGPT became available to the public in 2022, Arnold was not surprised when he came across a few essays that seemed too good to be true. 

“You can tell pretty quickly when it’s done just by human sight, largely because ChatGPT actually gets a lot of it wrong,” Arnold said. “And it’s not just in theology, but especially if you’re dealing with anything historical in theology. It will just make up citations and things that just don’t exist, or biographical data about a historical figure.”

Dr. Robert Mcdole

Over the summer, ChatGPT dominated the news, conversations and faculty meetings. Director for the Center of Teaching and Learning Services Dr. Robert McDole led the efforts to inform teachers on Cedarville’s campus about ChatGPT. 

The first reaction he saw from the faculty was fear. 

“The first reaction we had from teachers was, ‘Why do they need me anymore?’” Mcdole said. “So those who were aware back in the spring of ChatGPT started coming to the office, and we’d have conversations and they’d ask for ideas. We just started working with some faculty one-on-one who were struggling with that.”

McDole, as well as Professor of Biblical Studies Dr. Chris Miller, spoke in faculty meetings and seminars over the summer, trying to calm the wary teachers who wanted to get rid of technology in their classrooms altogether. McDole also began an informational podcast to help teachers understand how AI can be used positively in classrooms. 

“We did all sorts of things that basically blew people’s minds. I showed them how I had interacted with [an AI-generated] Abraham Lincoln and why he chose the Emancipation Proclamation with ChatGPT 4,” McDole said. “Then we had a conversation with [an AI-generated] Moses, asking him questions which were straight out of Scripture and he would even provide chapter and verse.”

As faculty learned more about the strengths and weaknesses of ChatGPT, some began to work with it and think of ways to make it a part of their curriculum. Before the beginning of the fall semester, the university advised teachers to put a statement about the use of AI in their syllabuses but left the use of it up to the individual professor. 

“That’s the way we do things here at Cedarville, it’s faculty-driven,” McDole said. “There’s got to be leeway for each faculty member to decide how best to use it for their given course and their given level, of course.”

Arnold’s experience with ChatGPT in his classrooms, as well as experimenting with it himself, caused him to see it as an opportunity to grow as an educator. 

“I think that we are able and should be able and willing to use whatever resources we have available to us, including AI and to a certain extent ChatGPT,” Arnold said. “I think it forces us as educators, especially as Christian educators, to rethink what we’re doing and which we should constantly be rethinking what we’re doing. Our goal is not simply to get a final product. If all we’re trying to do is get the right essay, then ChatGPT can do it.” 

When it comes to the return of blue textbooks and pencil essays, for now they will remain a thing of the past. 

“Cedarville is rather progressive with technology, we’ve always been at the forefront of that,” Sims said. “I could be wrong, but I see the university coming up with a way to make it work.” 

As teachers learn how ChatGPT can be used in the classrooms, they caution students to be wise in how they explore the world of AI. 

“Some students may think, ‘This means I don’t need to learn or I don’t need to go into this field,’ and that’s actually the furthest thing from the truth,” McDole said. “The focus of what education is really supposed to be is transforming my life to be more like Romans 12 by the renewing of your mind. That requires a process. And that’s what we’re here to do.” 

Avonlea Brown is a junior Broadcasting, Digital Media, and Journalism major from a small town in Maine. She is the co-editor of Campus News for Cedars Student News and currently working towards going abroad to study international journalism. She likes reading, travel, and learning new things. 

For a closer look at how Christians can look at AI in a biblical worldview, see this article in Cedars Off-Campus news: 

 *Photos provided by Scott Huck

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