Professor Van Eck is an associate professor and head of the Department of Private Law at the University of Johannesburg.
She recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the SaturdayStar on 09 February 2023.
OUR lives have become consumed with technology and, in many ways, the science fiction of yesterday has become the scientific reality of today.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the technological development of big data, cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence (albeit in its infancy) have propelled humanity to the brink of a post-human era where continued technological advances run a very real risk of rendering traditional educational structures obsolete.
Openai’s latest development in artificial intelligence in the form of CHATGPT is but one example of the threat to traditional education structures, schools and universities.
The chatbot CHATGPT is a form of artificial intelligence which provides information in a human manner, answers questions, has the capability of providing interactive tutorials and in many ways serves as a substitute for textbooks. One may even say that CHATGPT has the potential of replacing the function of educators. In the wake of such technological developments, educators may be tempted to throw in the towel, sit on the corner and raise the proverbial cardboard sign with the words scrawled upon it: “The end is nigh!”
But is CHATGPT really a threat to universities and educational structures as we know them? There are certain advantages in such technology as CHATGPT provides students with the opportunity to access information and explanations in a way that is accessible and interactive, which is not bound to the availability of an educator or the physical boundaries of brick-and-mortar structures.
However, despite these advantages, CHATGPT has the potential of substituting educational models and changing not only the way in which skills are taught and transferred but also to change the very skills required of school and university graduates. Take for instance, requesting a student to write an essay on virtually any subject can now be accomplished by CHATGPT within seconds, which means that the mode and content of assessments must be re-evaluated in the educational sphere.
As a result of these innovations and changes, CHATGPT may be viewed as the symbolic fall of the traditional education structures, signalling the replacement of educators and the start of a posthuman era of education. In fact, I asked CHATGPT about these risks to education and it provided a cleverly composed prose, which reads as follows:
Chatbots came with ease and speed, Universities felt the need, To adapt and join the trend, But in the end, it was their end.
No more lectures to attend, No more professors to befriend, No more human interaction, Just instant gratification.
The buildings stand empty now, A ghost town, an eerie vow, Of what once was a thriving place, Now a forgotten space.
But it’s not just the bricks and mortar, It’s the loss of human discourse, The loss of diversity, The loss of creativity.
So let this be a warning sign, Of what happens when we decline, To value the human touch, In favor of technology’s rush.
For in the end, it’s not just buildings we lose, But the essence of what it means to be human, it’s a muse.
CHATGPT is useful in transferring knowledge and skills, and if one were to limit education to merely a process of transferring knowledge and skills, then CHATGPT will certainly be the evolutionary step to bring the education system as we know it to extinction. However, education is not one-dimensional and is broader than simply the transfer of knowledge and skills.
Put differently, it certainly cannot be said that a person is educated by simply knowing things or having access to information. If this were the case, a doctor would only require a tablet and internet connection to perform open-heart surgery, or a lawyer may only need access to the latest case law database to try a case in court. This is and never will be the case.
From primary to tertiary education, education should be more than merely knowledge and access to information. Unlike information databases and artificial infrastructures such as CHATGPT, humans have a greater capacity to learn.
Take for instance, only a human can feel the thrill of getting it right after hours of struggling to master a subject matter or skill, or mastering a difficult concept and progressing from one subject to another. Only a human has the curiosity to ask the question “what if” or “what now”.
Only a human holds the capacity to have the satisfaction of solving a problem and the drive to make a change in the world. Education can then be said to be the realisation of a childhood dream and the way to think differently about the world. Education, therefore, feeds the soul of a person and cannot be replaced by simply having knowledge and access to information.
None of these things can be achieved merely by means of technology or transfer of knowledge, as these technologies are simply tools that fit into a greater puzzle of our humanity.
Although technological developments will undoubtedly disrupt the educational sector and highlight the inherent struggle between efficiencies and humanity, we must not lose sight of the purpose of education and our human spirit for progress, change and the realisation of our dreams for a better world. Education is, after all, more than the sum of what we know. It is also who we are and what we do with the knowledge we have.
*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.