Is ChatGPT the New CliffsNotes?  

Chatbot peaking up with discussion boxes around it

Remember CliffsNotes, the predecessor of Course Hero and similar web-based study resources? Like many GenXers, I had a few of those study guides with yellow-and-black covers in my L.L. Bean backpack along with my textbooks and kelly green Trapper Keeper. Sometimes I wonder about those long-gone study guides. Did using CliffsNotes constitute cheating? Were they merely handy summaries that students used to review before a test? Did teachers know that students were reading them?  

Fast forward more than 25 years, and I’m the one in the teacher’s seat at a college on the Georgia coast. Like some educators, I spend way too much time thinking about ChatGPT and other language model-based chatbots, trying to figure out what they mean for students, faculty, and instructional technology geeks like me.  

The more I learn about ChatGPT and its rivals through attending webinars, talking to colleagues, and toying with this web-based tool, the more questions I have. Sometimes I wonder, Is ChatGPT the CliffsNotes of today? On one hand, the CliffsNotes founders were bibliophiles, who touted the guides as a way to promote the readings of original texts, not as a substitute for them (About CliffsNotes). On the other hand, teachers and parents complained that the guides enabled students to skip reading the originals. I suppose the answer is somewhere in the messy middle: some students missed out on the joys of reading original work, and others used them to review what they read.   

Like CliffsNotes, ChatGPT and other generative AI tools can be used by anyone looking for a quick summary or to synthesize information. There are many, many potential uses for this language-based technology, but they are beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I will share some tips that have helped me grapple with this new technology.  

  1. Curate a collection of resources about ChatGPT and generative AI tools. Start small by collecting links, presentations, and other resources and adding them to a Google doc or saving them in a folder. In addition, you could contact your institution’s LMS administrator and ask them to create a course for faculty to house links, tips for talking to students about AI and academic integrity, and other resources. After faculty are loaded into this course, they could collaborate and share resources and examples. Like Faye L. Lesht (2023) who recently wrote about librarians and AI, I recommend working alongside librarians as conversations about ChatGPT and information literacy evolve. Collaborating with librarians to create a library or research guide, such as the ones developed by  Pace University  and Emory University, would be beneficial for faculty, staff, and students.  
  1. Expand the conversation to include academic support and tutoring centers. Flower Darby (2023) recently wrote about the importance of having conversations with faculty and students about AI, academic integrity, AI in the workplace, and other topics. Similar to Darby, I believe conversations about academic integrity and assignment design are crucial, and these conversations should extend to other learning spaces. By now, you have probably reached out to the director of the writer center, but have you talked to staff in tutoring centers or other learning assistance programs? Speak with the head of the tutoring center and other staff about their experience with AI and what they are seeing and hearing during academic coaching and tutoring sessions. Ask if they plan to talk to tutors about AI. A simple conversation would be a good starting point. For example, at the beginning of a tutoring session, the tutor could ask students to review the assignment directions and the instructor’s syllabus. The conversation could go like this: “Let’s log on to the LMS and see if your professor said anything about ChatGPT in the syllabus or assignment directions.” After all, one professor could say that any AI use is an academic integrity violation, and another professor could require AI to complete the assignment. Another professor could allow for limited AI use, such as brainstorming a topic, summarizing an article, or creating a clever title. Tutors and academic support staff could help students make these distinctions. 
  1. Take your colleagues’ feelings into consideration and think about the emotional ramifications of this technology. Conversations about AI can spark a wide range of emotions in faculty and students. Some colleagues may be giddy with the possibilities and assign low-stakes assignments to teach students AI. Others may take an easygoing approach and start with a one-on-one conversation with a student and ask them about their research process. Some instructors are frustrated and tired of talking to students about it. As one colleague said to me recently, “I’m tired of policing it.” ChatGPT is a hot topic on many campuses, and emotions may run high. Remember, you may not agree with your colleagues, but you can acknowledge their emotions, listen to their concerns, and keep an open mind.  
  1. Think about the characteristics of your students as you learn about generative AI and how it could impact course assignments. When I encounter a new tool, my first instinct is to rely on my background as an instructional designer and revisit the classic ADDIE (Analyze-Design-Develop-Implement-Evaluate) model, which can be applied by asking these questions:  
  • Who are the learners?  
  • What do they need to be able to do?  
  • How will you teach them?  
  • Teach them. 
  • Revise as needed. (ADDIE Model, n.d.) 

Most instructional designers have experience with creating assignments and working with emerging technologies; so, they could be a valuable resource for you in this age of AI. If you don’t have an instructional designer on campus, reach out to the staff at the center for teaching and learning. Of course, you can also search online for instructional design suggestions. For specific guidance about assignment makeovers, I recommend Assignment Makeovers in the AI Age: Essay Edition by Derek Bruff.  

Is AI going to be a game changer for higher education? Like CliffsNotes, these text-based chat tools can do a good job of summarizing information and assisting with routine tasks such as note-taking. However, like the teachers who noticed students using CliffsNotes rather than reading the originals, I worry about the risks of relying on water-downed versions of the originals rather than thinking critically and learning to evaluate and apply the words on the screen. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this tool yet, but I’m going to add it to my backpack and keep asking questions.   


Dr. Lisa McNeal serves as the director of eLearning at the College of Coastal Georgia and teaches interdisciplinary classes. Dr. McNeal started her career in higher education as a help desk specialist and quickly moved into academic technology, with emphasis in instructional design, online course development, and LMS administration. She enjoys watching sci-fi and reading dystopian novels, but she never imagined using AI in higher education.  

References 

About CliffsNotes. (n.d.). https://www.cliffsnotes.com/discover-about  

ADDIE Model. (n.d.). https://www.instructionaldesign.org/models/addie/  

Bruff, D. (2023, July 19). Assignment makeovers in the AI age: Essay edition. Agile Learning.  https://derekbruff.org/?p=4105  

Darby, F. (2023, June 27). 4 steps to help you plan for ChatGPT in your classroom: Why you should understand how to teach with AI tools–even if you have no plans to actually use them. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/4-steps-to-help-you-plan-for-chatgpt-in-your-classroom  

Lesht, F. L. (2023, November). Enhancing online student learning with academic library services. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/enhancing-online-student-learning-with-academic-library-services/