Field Notes on Digital Learning at Boston College

Solving World Peace with ChatGPT

| By

Spencer K Johnson

What relevance might ChatGPT have in a course on Peace Studies? After recent conversations with colleagues and faculty about the ChatGPT and teaching, I decided to find out for myself.  

a synth painting of someone looking at a peace sign on a phone.
Image Credit: Created with DALL-E 2 and the prompt “a synth painting of someone looking at a peace sign on a phone.’

Although it’s easy to feel threatened by something like ChatGPT, I think our task as educators is to think about what best serves our students in the world that is emerging. 

Increasingly, basic information gathering, calculating, and even simple writing will be done by bots. This creates the potential for a growing division between those who are simply “educated” and those who can think critically in collaboration with artificial intelligence and other sources of information and content. If a bot can collate sources, coherently express information, and perform calculations, students will need to be able to do more to be competitive in their careers.  They need to learn how to ask good questions, analyze answers, and apply information effectively. 

My course is an introduction to Peace Studies, which I teach from the vantage point of theology and religious studies as part of the Faith, Peace, and Justice program. The first week, I introduced different understandings of the field of “peace studies” and some of the major debates within the field. One major debate revolves around defining “peace.” One side tends to define peace in negative terms, as the absence of military conflict. Another group thinks of peace in more positive terms, as harmony and cooperation between various groups, identities, and states. 

After I felt like we had a good handle on the main ideas, I pulled up ChatGPT at the end of class. At first, they were surprised–even scandalized! In their minds, ChatGTP is something inappropriate for the classroom since it can be a tool for cheating. I suggested that we should see if ChatGPT could be a way to enhance our analytical skills. 

We asked ChatGPT to define peace studies. The bot gave a very well-written and coherent overview of the field of Peace studies and some of its main questions and ideas. On the surface, at least, it could have been an impressive answer on a final exam.  Students quickly noticed, however, that the answer seemed to only reflect the “negative peace” angle of Peace studies. They were able to identify the places where this bias was reflected in the words ChatGPT used and the examples it gave. I was impressed. Students were animated to discover that they could demonstrate what they had learned so effectively, and could put this knowledge into practice to evaluate information. 

ChatGPT prompt "What is Peace Studies?" with reponse: Peace studies is an interdisciplinary academic field that deals with the study of peace, conflict, and conflict resolution, including topics such as violence, security, and justice. The field encompasses various disciplines such as sociology, psychology, political science, economics, international relations, and philosophy, and it seeks to understand the causes of conflict, identify ways to prevent violence, and promote peaceful resolution of disputes. The ultimate goal of peace studies is to build a more peaceful world through research, education, and advocacy.
A screenshot of ChatGPT prompt and response

After class I had a conversation with one student about whether the apparent bias of ChatGPT represented biases in ChatGPT’s algorithms or sources, or whether it simply reflects the majority opinion in the field. Students were able to think deeply about source material, bias, and the ways that ideas are represented in different bodies of literature. I plan to revive this conversation when talking to them about finding good sources for their research later in the semester. 

In my mind, this was a very successful exercise because it pushed students beyond merely regurgitating information (something the bot could do easily on its own) to exercising critical thinking and analytical skills. It’s helping push me to be better at accomplishing what I most hope to achieve as an instructor. Instead of falling back on more performative modes of learning, I was able to push my students to think. Tackling ChatGPT also serves to help them (and me!) practice skills needed in all life–how to adapt and be willing to learn new ways of thinking and living in the world.

I gave a fair bit of direction to this first use of ChatGPT, but I want to try it again in a future class session and have students determine more of the inputs. Can they not only evaluate the answers but also practice the skill of asking good questions in order to solicit helpful information? I hope that students will benefit from seeing ChatGPT as something other than simply a fun activity, or a tool for cheating. It can be a powerful tool for learning.

About the Author

  • Spencer K Johnson

    S. Kyle Johnson is a Learning Designer in the Center for Digital Innovation in Learning at Boston College