Dr. Greg Cottrell
March 14, 2023

Don’t let ChatGPT take away the research process

As an AI language model, ChatGPT has the potential to revolutionize the way high school students approach research projects. With its ability to generate natural language text and answer questions, ChatGPT can help students streamline their research process and produce more accurate and insightful projects.  Just in case you didn’t believe me, these first two sentences in italics were taken verbatim from a blog article that I asked ChatGPT to write for me.  Which it did in just a matter of seconds.   Don’t worry, the rest of this blog is my own thoughts, not those of ChatGPT.  

ChatGPT and other AI language models are increasingly becoming referred to as “answer generators” instead of search engines.   Which leads to the question, “Do we want our kids to function like answer generators or search engines?”.  In my opinion, there is a time and place for both.  AI language models are here to stay and we should begin to explore ways to use them in education.  However, I think there is also still a strong case for teaching our students how to search for information, synthesize the ideas and write about their ideas.    

The real educational value of a high school research assignment often doesn’t come from the final written product that is turned in, it comes from the process that took place for the student to have the information and skills needed to write the paper.    Let’s be honest, most student research projects don’t generate new ideas for the world.  But they do however generate ideas that are new and novel to that student and require the student to activate their own critical thinking skills.   Much of the value of these activities isn’t in the answer, it is in the process.  

At Learnics our focus is on using data about student online activity to improve education and promote effective online research processes.   Learnics is a unique tool that begins recording student online activity when a student begins an assignment and submits this record of activity when a student submits an assignment.  This record of targeted online activity contains valuable information about the learning process that took place.  Below are a few examples of how Learnics can help teachers and students focus on learning processes.

Establish Research Expectations

Letting students loose on the internet doesn’t have to equate to a free for all that encourages students to find an answer the quickest.   Learnics allows teachers to establish expectations for the amount of time students spend on the assignment as a whole as well as on individual websites.  Teachers can provide recommended websites and require students to use those resources.  Establishing expectations for research lets students know how you want them to interact with online content.   Students can view the expectations at the start of the assignment and track their progress during the assignment.  

Review Search Behavior

For most educational research activities, we want our students to be searching for information not generating answers.  Well the best way to see if a student actually did that is simply to look at a record of the search terms that the student used for the assignment and determine if the scope of the research that was actually conducted matches the scope of the assignment.    Learnics provides this data as a list of Google Search terms used as well as search terms used on the major research databases.  The best and most engaging research assignments often show evidence of the search terms evolving as the  student engages in the research and learns new terms and concepts related to the original search topic.   If you receive a written assignment from a student that looks like a topic was thoroughly researched from all angles yet the search terms used were few and basic, this may be a sign that the student used an AI answer generator.  

Look at the time

One of the biggest reasons why people like AI Generated Answers is that they save time.   While I am hesitant to equate time spent in an assignment to quality of learning that took place, the amount of time recorded by a student within an assignment can provide a red flag that the student might not have engaged in the assignment in the way that the teacher expected.   Learnics provides time data in 3 different ways. 

  • Teacher Dashboard

This dashboard provides real time monitoring of student activity specifically as it relates to the assignment expectations.  For example, if you asked students to spend 20 minutes accessing your recommended websites and then another 10 minutes on websites that the students find on their own, this dashboard will show you whether they did that.

  • Classwide Bar Chart

This chart shows the total amount of time that each student in class spent on the assignment.  It also breaks down the time to show time spent in the google doc versus time spent researching.  This is another great way to spot outliers who may have used ChatGPT or maybe just need additional support. 

  • Individual Student Time Reports

Learnics provides a way for both a teacher and student to explore where an individual student spent their time.  Users can see a pie chart of total time spent on each site as well as a bar chart of time spent on each website.  This can help a teacher understand where the student received most of their information.  Additionally another unique feature provided by Learnics is a bibliography that shows the amount of time spent on the cited source.  This is a great way to truly understand what resources were actual references for this assignment. 

In summary, ChatGPT and other AI answer generators are here to stay.  There is a time and place to use these new technologies in education.  However, students also need to learn how to build their own research and critical thinking skills.  We can try to use internet filtering and teacher monitoring to catch students using AI answer generators, or we can use tools like Learnics to clearly establish expectations for online learning processes.   With ChatGPT the answers are becoming less important than the learning process and Learnics brings that process to light.

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