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  • Writer's pictureIttai Shiu

Demystifying AI, Students and GenZ

A Look Into How ChatGPT is Impacting Education & Today's Youth

Within a few months of its release, ChatGPT, an advanced language model that generates human-like text responses based on the input it receives, started bleeding into academic assignments turned in by students. A type of technology powerful enough to answer questions, compose emails, and create entire screenplays with minimal direction is compounded with its ability to iterate based on student feedback.


Most educators, myself included, weren’t aligned on how to react to students using ChatGPT. I knew I needed more context on the relationship between students and AI. It just so happened I was teaching a marketing research class at the Entrepreneurship Program at UC Berkeley Extension. I decided that if I could demonstrate fundamental marketing research techniques applied to this real world problem and generate data that I could analyze then I could kill two birds with one stone!


The objective of my research project was to better understand the circumstances and perceptions of a student's usage of tools like ChatGPT on school assignments and potentially provide much needed context that might demystify AI to educators like me. At the very least prevent a knee-jerk reaction as academic institutions develop a policy that would work for them and their faculty.


My students volunteered to be first respondents to a survey and were gracious test subjects for a panel discussion. I also leaned on their networks to help promote the study outside of UC Berkeley so I could get samples from colleges across the United States. The results were enlightening and, dare I say, hopeful.

AI is NOT doing 100% of the work

More accurately, students don't expect AI to do 100% of the work. Only a minority of students (less than 15%) reported using AI on every assignment. For assignments where AI was used, NOBODY (literally 0%) reported that AI was doing more than 90% of the work. It turns out that that number was closer to 30%. AI can obviously save time in the research and writing process, but expectations were tempered. In fact, 68% of students don't believe AI will actually improve their grades and 82% remain unchanged about their commitment to their education.


AI is (mostly) NOT the same as Plagiarism


One of the more extreme opinions circulating within the educational community is that AI usage will sow academic dishonesty and destroy the learning process. While this point cannot be ignored, students, for the most part, disagree. When asked if AI was the same as cheating, responses were mixed with 60% leaning no, 30% answering yes and 10% not sure. Interestingly enough 50% of students fear that using AI will result in a grading penalty. I believe that this is happening because 1) the definitions around AI use are still unclear and 2) school's haven't had a chance to react to this rapidly emerging technology.


There is, however, a tried and true position on plagiarism, which includes a clear definition of it, a process to identify it and policies around consequences for violations. The plagiarism detection tool, TurnItIn, has been one of the industry standards for enforcing that process for over 20 years and has already released an AI detection plugin. However, it could take some time to evaluate and figure out how to work this into a curriculum, which is especially challenging to K-12 educators.


These are all findings and positions that may likely shift by the time this article is read and I certainly see the need for change and adaptation, but it was encouraging to find that 82% of students remain unchanged about their commitment to their education despite the emergence of AI.


AI can help students be better students


We asked students under what circumstances do they use AI? Some of the results were expected, for example, being late, being busy, being tired or needing to increase the length of a paper. But by a significant margin, AI was used to get a better understanding of a topic or get unstuck with a difficult topic. This is reinforced by comments from ESL students who found AI VERY valuable in helping them clarify the nature of a challenging assignment and plan their approach.

It’s heartening to learn that students seem to be pragmatic about the paradox of AI. While there's acknowledgement that AI represents a fundamental shift in education and the future of work, less than 10% of the students polled had strong concerns about its negative impact on job opportunities. In fact, 47% believed that AI is the key to pursuing their career objectives.


AI and GenZ will Grow Up Together


This introduction of generative AI is shining a spotlight directly on GenZ, a generation that has been coined the most individualistic. This label plays out in social media outlets, the emergence of all of the niche interests that they embrace as well as all of the social constructs (gender norms, racial inequality, etc) they reject. Being an individual is important, especially in this loud, anxious, hyperconnected world.


When asked when students would NOT use AI for an assignment, there were a number of selections on the survey to choose from as well as a write-in option. Citing sources, referencing specific events or connections and proofreading came up as expected, but the most common responses surprised us - 60% of students responded that they wanted it to look like their work while another 30% simply responded that they wanted to do the work themselves.


Conversations with teachers reinforced the underreported sentiment that a large population of GenZ wants their work to have their fingerprint on it. This desire for personalization presented balance to the equation and was one of the most reassuring realizations that I had. Still uncertain is whether AI will empower GenZ to stand out or will it create yet more noise to overwhelm them. More questions need to be asked along the way, but clearly, AI and GenZ will be forced to grow up together.


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