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ChatGPT — On a course on the Sociology programme at the University of Copenhagen, students have been using ChatGPT to understand and interact with theory in new ways. It has lifted the students' academic level, according to the instructor.
Omniscient and always available. Sound like a good mentor?
If you ask postdoc and instructor Mark Friis Hau of the Department of Sociology, FAOS, at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), this is perhaps the role that AI technologies like ChatGPT can have for students in the future.
»ChatGPT never gets tired. It is available at three in the morning. It responds quickly. It responds always. And on a two-hours-a-week course, that contains difficult and complex material, it can be extremely useful. If we teach the students to use it correctly,« he says.
He is currently doing a teacher training programme for assistant professors. It is in this context that he is teaching a course on critical theory for students from anthropology, sociology and political science at both bachelor’s and master’s level.
»My teacher training is about how to incorporate ChatGPT actively in the teaching, and I have therefore been allowed to use the students on this course as a group of volunteer laboratory mice,« he laughs.
Mark Friis Hau has experimented with ChatGPT at three different levels – in his own preparation, among the students themselves, and finally by setting up the chatbot to become an actual mentor for students.
ChatGPT never gets tired. It is available at three in the morning. It responds quickly. It responds always.
Mark Friis Hau, Postdoc, Department of Sociology (FAOS)
In his own preparation, he uses the chatbot to create easy-to-understand cheat sheets that summarise the key concepts of the day.
»My students are both bachelor’s and master’s students. They come from completely different disciplines, and one third of them are international students. They do not have the same prerequisites, and this can make the teaching challenging. The chatbot’s cheat sheets are therefore very useful if, say, there is a student who can’t quite remember what ‘reification’ means in Marxist lingo,« says Mark Friis Hau. He says that he also uses ChatGPT for feedback and to design exercises for the students.
»The chatbot does not replace me as an instructor, of course, but it saves me a lot of preparation time.«
The students have also been encouraged to incorporate the chatbot actively in their work with the theories on the course. ChatGPT, for example, was asked to provide a summary of the most important points in a difficult and complicated text prior to the reading of the text.
»This turned out to give the students a completely new understanding of the material, and it has actually raised their academic level. For some it has been very useful to use ChatGPT to help understand a long and complicated text. Others have taken a further step and have entered into a dialogue with the chatbot in a creative way, and this has really led them to interact with the material,« says Mark Friis Hau.
The students have also been given ChatGPT on the course to help convert difficult theories into examples from the real world. And they have experimented with setting up hypothetical discussions between two theorists.
According to the instructor, the most exciting experiment in the course was to get the chatbot to work as a mentor for the students.
If you ask about more recent articles or theorists, it tends to hallucinate
Mark Friis Hau, Postdoc, Department of Sociology (FAOS)
»Based on the internal structure of ChatGPT, I have created a special chatbot – a so-called Socratic-GPT – that works the other way round. By giving it a special prompt, I’ve set it up so that it always asks questions,« says Mark Friis Hau.
The inquisitive chatbot has carried out ‘AI-assisted cluster supervision’ on the course, and the students have been able to use it to discuss their own exam ideas.
»ChatGPT functions like a funnel. It’s great at describing something in a general sense, but as you get more specific, the worse it gets. If you ask about more recent articles or theorists, it tends to hallucinate,« says Mark Friis Hau.
He still believes however that, in the long term, ChatGPT can become a useful and empowering tool for teaching.
»As a teacher I have limited time and resources. And the point is that the chatbot can help students with basic things, so that I can spend my time improving the level of the classes even further. We humans are, after all, still better than a chatbot – but we are not always available,« says Mark Friis Hau.
Corina Schwarz is an exchange student from Austria and takes part in the critical theory course.
This is the first time she has worked with AI technology on her degree programme, and at present she has »mixed feelings about it,« she says.
»I think it works really well for some things and worse for others. But so far it has generally been cool to use it, because you work with the material in a completely different way than I have tried before.«
According to Corina Schwarz, you can compare ChatGPT to a kind of extended Google that can be useful if you are trying to understand a well-known and older theorist at a general level.
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»Bourdieu is a really good example of a theorist that ChatGPT can get you to learn more about. A lot has been written about him, so it can easily find answers to the questions you ask. However, if we are talking about a more recent theorist, it is more shaky.«
She has so far primarily used the chatbot to provide summaries of texts or to present empirical examples of difficult theory. She has also used it to discuss angles in which she could approach an exam assignment.
Do you think this means that you think less yourself than you otherwise would have done?
»It’s a good question, but that is not my first impression. I would not trust it if I had not read the text myself. So I feel that I spend the same amount of time regardless, but I get the chance to work with the material in a different way.«