Learning About Machine Learning


Washington College Center for Teaching and Learning Series Explores Potential and Peril of ChatGPT

illustration of man at desk catching words as they fall from end of distillation equipment with pages of text in the beaker over the flame

Like many members of the general public, Washington College Professor of English Sean Meehan noticed what felt like the rapid emergence of artificial intelligence into writing at the end of last year. Suddenly, ChatGPT was all over the media, especially in opinion pieces making bold predictions with varying opinions about whether AI writing would be liberating or destructive. 

But Meehan is unlike the rest of the general public in several essential ways. He is a faculty member at Washington College and directs the liberal arts institution’s writing program. He is also co-director of the Barbara and George Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), alongside Emily Steinmetz, chair of the department of anthropology & archaeology. 

Both the cheerleading futurists and the doomsayers struck Meehan as overwrought, and the initial reactions he saw to try to ban AI writing altogether or give up in the face of its perceived inevitable devaluing of essay writing did not seem like productive ways to move ahead. 

Instead, Meehan reached out to colleagues across the College—in fields including computer science, world languages and cultures, and educational technology—to help Cromwell CTL create a series of campus events called “Learning about Machine Learning.” The three sessions are meant to help faculty, students, and staff to engage with the use of artificial intelligence-driven writing like that produced by ChatGPT and the implications it holds for higher education, not only its possible harms, but also how and whether it might be used as a teaching tool.

“[The series] is consistent with the kind of learning we have here. It is interdisciplinary,” Meehan said. “We are going to do what we are teaching students to do. We are going to inquire into what this means and what we might learn from it.”

The series opened on Jan. 25 with a presentation by Kyle Wilson, John W. Allender Associate Professor of Ethical Data Science at Washington College, who provided an overview of what ChatGPT is and how it works on a very basic level, then engaged the audience in a discussion about the topic. One senior in the audience was so impressed, he not only found Wilson after the event to keep asking questions, he is now auditing the machine learning class Wilson is teaching this semester.

“When I went to this talk with Dr. Wilson, I thought I knew what to expect. It just blew my mind how far things had already progressed,” said Jack Goembel ’23, a biology major applying to medical school. He said Wilson’s initial presentation took an approach that was “very, very Washington College. (The event) was full of all different kinds of people from all different fields with different perspectives. They asked questions. It was very Socratic. The majority of the time was spent asking and answering questions.”

Meehan said that the hope is for the series to help move the campus community from learning about the technology to considering how to use (or not use) and regulate (or at least acknowledge) ChatGPT and similar tools on campus. The two upcoming events in the series focus on discussing potential applications of machine learning in higher education and how campus principles and policies need to adapt.

More information on “Learning about Machine Learning,” including dates and locations, and resources and further reading connected to the series are available on the Cromwell CTL blog, The Catalyst. 

Learning About Machine Learning Upcoming Sessions

Second Conversation: Where Might We Find/Use Machine Learning in the Classroom and on Campus? 
Thursday, March 2. 11:30 am – 12:30 pm. Coffee Hour in the Faculty Lounge, Hodson Hall

Join us for a Speedshare workshop on where ChatGPT and other machine learning tools might be useful in teaching and learning. Presentations and demonstrations from Washington College faculty, staff, and students. Bring a lunch; we’ll provide the refreshments.

Third Conversation: How Should We Address Machine Learning in our Principles and Policies? 
Monday, April 10. 4:30 – 5:30 pm. Hynson Lounge, Hodson Hall.

Join us for a concluding philosophical discussion that aims to develop common principles and guidelines for machine learning in education, relevant for potential updates to the Honor Code, new material for student and faculty orientations, and opportunities for research and further conversations.