A Weber State University professor integrates ChatGPT into his coursework, and the students thrive.

Embracing AI in education

A Weber State University professor integrates ChatGPT into his coursework, and the students thrive.

Alex Lawrence teaches a course in the Department of Professional Sales at Weber State University on Monday, January 30, 2023. Lawrence has recently begun integrating ChatGPT and artificial intelligence writing programs into his lessons. Photo by Benjamin Zack.

Alex Lawrence sees a straightforward answer to the problem of students using artificial intelligence (AI) to cheat: let them use it and turn it into a learning experience.

Lawrence, who teaches sales technology and sales proposal courses at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, made national headlines earlier this year in publications like the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! Finance when he began to integrate AI tools like ChatGPT into his students’ coursework.

“My first step was, ‘How do I get them to do real-world, hands-on, meaningful work that gets them to interact with these technologies?’” Lawrence says. “My default is always going to be a very, very strong embrace of new technologies.”

The international debate about AI reached mainstream status this year as new tools have made basic AI generation widely available. Everything from text to images to videos could suddenly be built with AI, and concerns about the world as we know it being rewritten soon followed.

In the classroom, the situation was murky: students could produce whole essays, for example, without actually doing any work. Teachers suddenly had to figure out how to spot a new form of plagiarism. OpenAI, ChatGPT’s parent company, stepped in this past January to create a tool to help identify AI-generated text.

"My default is always going to be a very, very strong embrace of new technologies."

But while other classrooms were creating new rules to derail the possibility of a false essay, Weber’s business students were getting to take the reins.

The upshot for Lawrence’s students is that the tools become intrinsic to the learning experience. Lawrence has his students start by practicing writing prompts for ChatGPT, the AI tool he primarily focuses on in class. From there, he has his students use AI to generate copy for their LinkedIn profiles and build Powerpoint presentations. Finally, they are allowed to experiment with other AI programs but must follow strict rules.

They have to disclose what tools they use and screenshot the prompts they use in creating their projects. Then, they screenshot the results of their AI prompts and write up their takeaways from the experience. He says it has led to deeper learning in his class.

“Their learning experiences were at a much higher level; the quality of their work was significantly improved,” Lawrence says of his students using AI.

Educators largely agree that they need to embrace the existence of the tech and maintain a way for their students to learn. For example, the University of Utah released guidelines earlier this year that will allow students to use ChatGPT in their coursework.

Describing himself as a lifelong entrepreneur who became an “accidental teacher,” Lawrence says he wants to use tools his students will use in the workplace.

“​​I don’t think it really matters what your opinion is; you don’t have a choice. The students are using this stuff,” he says. “The genie’s out of the bottle.”

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.