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The Daily Tar Heel

ChatGPT: Cheating or checking?

UNC students and professors learn to navigate AI resources in the classroom


Hours go by as a student ponders the best way to write their four-page essay. They reconsider, open ChatGPT on the computer and type “Write an essay about anthropology.”

Magic. An entire essay appears on the student’s computer within seconds. 

This was the reality for a UNC student who, like many others nationwide, has used artificial intelligence to complete assignments.  

ChatGPT, or Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer, is a chatbot developed by OpenAI that was launched in late November. It is a powerful bot that is capable of producing in-depth writing and generating responses to questions within seconds. The bot can produce content including sentences on any topic, explanatory answers to questions and more.

“If I don’t know the answer, I’ll copy and paste the whole question and put the answer in ChatGPT and it’ll tell me the right answer,” the student said.

The platform has grown increasingly popular, attracting an average of 96 million visitors per month since its launch.

Grace Lena, a student at UNC, said the bot’s capabilities have made it possible for it to be used for cheating at the collegiate level since the generated answers from the bot can be considered plagiarism for essay questions. 

The UNC Honor Court takes plagiarism seriously. If the professor of a class at UNC claims ChatGPT as unauthorized material, getting caught using the program results in an honor code violation. 

“It’s really up to the professor to decide how severe they want to punish you based on the grade sanction if you’re found guilty,” Lena said. 

Lena said she personally believes using ChatGPT is cheating. In using someone else’s words or the program’s words as an original thought, it falls under the plagiarism category, she said. 

The University Honor Code says the following constitute academic dishonesty:

"Plagiarism in the form of deliberate or reckless representation of another’s words, thoughts, or ideas as one’s own without attribution in connection with submission of academic work, whether graded or otherwise.
Cheating, in the form of gaining or attempting to gain an undue advantage on examinations or other academic work, whether graded or otherwise, including but not limited to the following:
a. Using unauthorized materials and methods (notes, books, electronic information, telephonic or other forms of electronic communication, or other sources or methods)"

Because it is up to the professor to authorize the platform, Lena said some people believe it is not necessarily cheating. Instead, they might view it as simply making use of the resources and technology available to them.

Douglas Lauen is a professor in the public policy department. He said he thinks of ChatGPT as an “evolution of search.” He said he believes cheating with online resources like Google or blog posts for academic purposes is the same as using ChatGPT with bad intent, and that it’s the responsibility of the student to discern whether their use of such programs is fair.

“It's up to the user to figure out if that is accurate, useful, a violation of someone's copyright or an unethical use of some information,” Lauen said.

According to Lauen, the best way to make this determination is to know background information about the platform — this includes knowing that ChatGPT is a sophisticated search algorithm, summarized in a natural-sounding shortened language.

“If you don't have that background knowledge, you're going to probably misuse it,” Lauen said. “So, educators are now going to have to figure out how to teach students how to use ChatGPT.”

Other concerns about ChatGPT include its ability to produce in-depth essays, particularly those that could be used in college admissions. Typing in “write a college personal essay” with criteria about your life produces a well-written essay that can be tailored to a specific word count. 

“I definitely feel like if someone wanted to use it to write an admissions essay they could, and I think it’ll make its way in slowly,” Lena said. 

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Despite the convenience of an automatic essay using ChatGPT, there could be detrimental effects from using these essays in an application.

“That would be a really stupid move on your part,” Lauen said. “ChatGPT is going to give you the blandest and most uninteresting essay anyone has ever read. That essay is not going to help any student get into UNC. They read hundreds of thousands of essays, right? They can tell when they're reading something that is written that doesn't sound like a student.”

The anonymous student who uses the platform for their academics believes it is pointless to use ChatGPT for a personal essay because they think its AI would have a difficult time capturing an individual's personality better than a human can. 

 “You’re your own person,” they said.

Outside of admissions, the student said ChatGPT as a whole is something many think is a step in the right direction, given that it’s used with the good intention of improving one's knowledge on a given subject.

“I don’t see it as cheating. I see it as taking advantage of the future,” the anonymous student said.

CLARIFICATION: Grace Lena spoke to The Daily Tar Heel in her capacity as a student, not in a way that represents or reflects the opinions of the UNC Honor Court, of which she is a member.