Computer programs that learn to communicate have been around for a few years, but the latest and most sophisticated iterations of these artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots are causing a stir in classrooms, college admissions offices, and with job recruiters.
Released in November 2022, ChatGPT has been used to write emails, essays, and cover letters. Some teachers have embraced the generative pre-trained transformer (GPT) technology and incorporate it in their classrooms. Others approach ChatGPT and its successor, GPT-4, with concern that students will use these tools to cheat or to bypass tasks that would help them develop critical thinking skills.
Asked whether students can benefit from using it as a resource in accounting classes, ChatGPT answered: "While ChatGPT can be a valuable tool for students to use in accounting courses, it ultimately depends on the learning objectives of the course and the specific assignment or task at hand."
Following its release, ChatGPT reached 100 million active users in two months — something that took Instagram more than two years to achieve. Both free and paid users can submit prompts to ChatGPT, which then typically responds with several paragraphs about the topic in question. ChatGPT and GPT-4 are products of OpenAI, a research laboratory based in San Francisco. Competitors like Microsoft and Google are working on comparable AI chatbots.
University students all over the world are using ChatGPT, according to faculty members who presented on the topic during an AICPA & CIMA Global Academic Champion Forum in March 2023. This forum, which takes place three times a year, brings together CPA and CGMA academic champions from around the world to discuss emerging topics in accounting education.
During the forum, faculty discussed what an AI chatbot can and can't do, as well as ways to use it appropriately in the classroom. Also discussed was how to discourage students from cutting and pasting ChatGPT answers instead of creating their own.
Pros and cons of AI chatbots
"We can either embrace the technology in artificial intelligence or we can bury our head in the sand," said Scott Dell, CPA, DBA, assistant professor of accounting at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C.
ChatGPT can perform many useful tasks for faculty members, Dell said. The chatbot and GPT-4, the updated version that was released in March 2023, can summarize content and translate writing into more than 100 languages. Paste in a résumé, and ChatGPT will write a letter of recommendation, something faculty members spend countless hours doing.
"It's a great springboard for ideas," Dell said, and can assist you "if you get into a writer's block and you're looking for a release. [ChatGPT] does provoke thought, and making you think and your students think, I think, is a good idea."
The creation of ChatGPT has been compared to when graphic calculators became available, said Wendy Tietz, CPA, Ph.D., an accounting professor at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. "It does help increase productivity, but it has to be thoughtful, critical use."
ChatGPT has limitations. It has passed the bar exam, but it failed one of Dell's own tests, which his students passed with an average of 82%. Its content can be inaccurate, especially when it's asked for citations, Dell said. Its writing is "very vanilla, and lacking heart, soul, and authenticity," he added.
Perhaps its biggest drawback relates to data and privacy issues. U.S. law firms and investment banks have banned the software because of the sensitive data they manage. In March, Italy became the first Western country to ban ChatGPT because of privacy concerns, though access to the site has since been restored.
Is using AI chatbots cheating?
It's important for students to be aware of ChatGPT — how to use it and its limitations, Tietz said, but she doesn't want her students relying on answers from the site. That's why many academics across the globe are wondering when ChatGPT use crosses the line into academic dishonesty.
As of March 14, about 40% of higher education institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge, either banned or planned to ban the use of ChatGPT, according to an independent research project conducted by Thereza de Aguiar, ACMA, CGMA, Ph.D., senior lecturer in accountancy at University of Aberdeen Business School in Scotland and research ethics officer at her institution. Scotland's University of Edinburgh considers the use of ChatGPT to be misconduct.
But not all schools are taking the same approach, de Aguiar found in her research project, which doesn't reflect the views of institutions she's affiliated with. Heriot-Watt University, also in Edinburgh, considers it an opportunity.
Some academic journals are even accepting submissions that were created with the help of ChatGPT, but with special requirements, including the disclosure that AI was used. Referring to information from Advance HE, a UK professional organization promoting excellence in higher education, de Aguiar said there's really a gray area between two extremes: using ChatGPT with the intention to cheat and using it as a launch point for original work.
To raise students' awareness of this gray area, Tietz assigns readings, including the ChatGPT user agreement and prompt tutorials, so students develop an understanding of the software. She has also offered these projects for extra credit:
- She asked students to build an infographic highlighting four to six specific uses for ChatGPT in their chosen field to get them thinking about creative ways to implement the software. She has also assigned a version of this project where students are required to include the potential drawbacks of using ChatGPT in their profession. Students submit the infographic along with a short video explaining it.
- She tasked students with creating a brochure on Word or Canva outlining how an organization — maybe one they aim to work for or have worked for before — can use ChatGPT. Students need to include an introduction, use cases, cautions and advantages of using ChatGPT, and a conclusion.
4 ways to discourage cheating with ChatGPT
Tietz recommended these strategies to ensure students aren't simply copying answers from the program to respond to essay and discussion questions:
- Require citations. As Dell noted, ChatGPT can sometimes make up information, also known as "artificial hallucinations." It's not a reliable tool when it comes to providing article titles and links. "I put in [a prompt asking] ChatGPT to give me some videos and articles to read about ChatGPT use in accounting," Tietz said. "It gave me a very great looking list, [but every item on the list] was made up."
- Ask about personal experiences. ChatGPT can't write about real experiences. For example, Tietz assigned a discussion question asking students how their understanding of Excel had evolved over the past several weeks of class.
- Ask about current events. ChatGPT doesn't have knowledge of events that occurred after 2021. For example, when asked to explain why Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, it answered: "It didn't."
- Incorporate "signpost" terms. "Signposts," Tietz said, are area references like, "on page four of the reading or in the Horngren article on the third paragraph." ChatGPT won't be able to respond accurately to such prompts. At the very least students will need to write thoughtful ChatGPT prompts to answer these questions, she said.
— Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, email email@example.com.