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'It’s a tool like any other tool': Reflections on AI in the classroom

Carroll Hall is pictured on Oct. 13, 2022.

This fall, Provost Christopher Clemens commissioned the UNC Generative AI Committee to help faculty and students adapt to the widespread use of generative artificial intelligence online. Following the committee's creation, some professors are designing coursework that teaches students to use artificial intelligence responsibly. 

Kenan-Flagler Business School professor and committee member Mark McNeilly, who is already teaching classes that incorporate AI, said the extensive use of software like ChatGPT has many implications for the work of researchers and academics.

“We knew early on in the year that there was a need for the University to address generative AI, ensuring the proper use of it in academia by students and the ethical use of it,” McNeilly said.

ChatGPT and other machine-learning software — including chatbots, image generators and research assistants — have sparked ongoing conversations about ethics and academic honesty

Steven King, an associate professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and Kenan-Flagler, uses generative AI in his personal work and curricula.

“That’s another tool that students have access to," he said. "Now, there’s a right way to use that, so what we say is that we want them to use generative AI in a way that helps them to learn, not helps them to slack.”

McNeilly said he is currently teaching an “AI entrepreneurship” class, in which students will create a product or service with the help of AI. His goal is to teach students how to use AI responsibly by documenting how they use it and researching its output for false or biased statements.

“We’re encouraging our faculty to use it to improve their teaching, encouraging students to use it because they’re going to need these skills and encouraging faculty to make sure their students ‘get it’ through integrating AI into assignments,” he said.

In early 2023, BestColleges found that 31 percent of college students say their instructors have explicitly banned the use of generative software in coursework. 

Stan Ahalt, who serves on the AI committee and as the inaugural dean of the UNC School of Data Science and Society, said that attempts to ban the use of AI software don’t work. 

“It’s a tool like any other tool,” Ahalt said. “Sadly, I’m old enough to remember when calculators first came out, when they were considered with, ‘Oh my gosh, nobody will be able to do math in the future!’ Well, that’s not true. We just learned to use the tool as a tool.”

Some students already noticed the appearance of AI in their coursework. Biology and history major Wolf Gordon-Escobar keeps track of developments in machine learning software, especially those that pertain to academics and creative work. 

“It has a lot of really amazing applications, especially in medicine: in identifying all sorts of things, in doing a lot of things that humans just don’t have the patience or time to do as efficiently as it can do,” Gordon-Escobar said. “But it is incredibly, incredibly abusable — and incredibly dangerous when used unethically.”

Ahalt said that he would like to gather students to have a conversation about generative AI. He also said that the AI committee should review the software they recommend to students and faculty in the future.

“I don’t think we’ve attempted to do that type of verification,” he said. “I think it’s something that we’re going to need to be alert to.”

The Carolina AI Literacy initiative is a site with three virtual modules designed to teach students and faculty at UNC how to write, fact-check and document their use of AI. Ahalt recommends the site for those looking to use AI in a responsible manner at UNC. 

“It's about being introduced to it as an issue to consider, discuss and talk about, and to really sink your teeth into and understand, before you’re told to use it,” Gordon-Escobar said. “Especially before you’re being told to utilize it without really thinking about it.”

@dailytarheel |

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