university students ChatGPT

There were more than 1 million visits to ChatGPT website at universities in last exam season

As universities continue to review their assessment policies, our investigation suggests they may already be playing catch up

Students and academics have visited the ChatGPT website more than one million times in the space of two months, an investigation by The Tab has found.

Between eight Russell Group universities, there were 128,402 recorded visits to the chatbot website registered from the universities’ WiFi in December and 982,809 in January. 

The remaining two-thirds of the Russell Group said they do not track the internet browsing activity of users in responses to Freedom of Information requests made by The Tab. As a median figure, Russell Group universities recorded 34,543 visits each to the ChatGPT website from their own WiFi in the two months.

December and January didn’t just represent the first two months since the launch of the Silicon Valley software by Open AI on 30th November. These months also coincided with most universities’ winter exam period as students were tested on their first term of learning.  

The data helps to quantify for the first time to what extent ChatGPT is being used at university as students uncover new methods to use the software to help complete assessments and universities battle to maintain academic integrity. 

At Warwick alone there were more than 850,000 visits from the university’s WiFi in December and January. The university’s assessment period took place between 12-16th December and 9-14th January.

A spokesperson for Warwick University said it has taken an “active approach” towards dealing with ChatGPT and said the university is reviewing the design of future exams. “This includes not only the question to be answered, but also detection techniques showing where AI has been used inappropriately,” they added.

The figure also reached six figures in Newcastle where there were 112,290 recorded visits in December and January. There was just shy of 50,000 site visits at Liverpool in the two months and upwards of 40,000 at Glasgow University. 

And yet, on the whole universities have attempted to downplay the findings. 

Newcastle University told us it is to “be expected that many staff and students have an interest in, and are actively exploring AI”. The university pointed towards its “world-leading” School of Computing, the National Innovation Centre for Data and “our work with partners in business” as a trio of reasons to explain the 112,290 site hits. 

Cardiff University also said the figures were not “unexpected”. The university conceded the rise from zero site visits in December to 14,443 in January was a “marked increase” but added: “Given the media coverage ChatGPT has received since its launch in late 2022, it is not unexpected.”

Of course, it is perhaps unsurprising universities are not keen to concede software – which provides an answer in seconds which mimics the style and syntax of a human response – might be being used to help students take their exams, simultaneously undermining the academic rigour of their institution. 

Olivia is a second year student at the University of Manchester. She told The Tab she hadn’t used ChatGPT until a few weeks ago. Now she can’t see herself turning back. 

“I saw more and more people using it in the library to plan essays. So when I had an essay due and I was doing my research, I started putting in questions because it gives you quite a good concise summary of information around a topic.

“If I’d written a paragraph for example, I would use it to improve a sentence I’d already written. I don’t think I’ve ever copied full bits and put it into an essay but I’ve definitely used it for making something sound better.”

While the media has been quick to paint a picture of an academic armageddon where ChatGPT will “kill the student essay”, the reality is more nuanced. 

Yes, theoretically you can write a university essay in 20 minutes and get a 53 from a Bristol University lecturer who said he’d “read students’ essays worse than this one”, the reality is very few people would be so lazy or be willing to take the risk.

We spoke to dozens of University of Manchester students who echoed Olivia’s experience. “It’s good for essay planning,” one student told us. “I used it to proofread my essay and it gave me tips at the end about what else I could write about,” a student added. “I’ve used it as a starter for points to cover in my literature review,” another added. 

Whilst all of these examples seem more innocuous than copying and pasting an entire essay from ChatGPT, under University of Manchester guidelines, they are all forms of cheating. 

Not only are the words generated by the chatbot used in an assessment considered plagiarism, the university says the ideas the bot suggests also constitute plagiarism as they are the amalgamation of human authors’ ideas without referencing them. 

university students ChatGPT

And while students are told using the ideas ChatGPT presents in their assessments is a form of plagiarism, are students currently being taught anything today in their lectures and seminars by actual humans?

No, they aren’t. And they won’t be tomorrow either. This week marks the fifth week of staff strikes this term as lecturers continue their relentless fight for better pay and pension conditions. 

Dylan is in her final year at Glasgow University. The fourth year student told The Tab: “With strikes, it’s been such a useful tool to actually have something explain stuff instead of just going through all this set reading independently.”

She said she’s used the software numerous times since January. “Sometimes I’ll use it as a tool to assemble critical essays based around a theme or a novel that I’ll then go off and read.

“Then sometimes when I have those essays I’ll use it to summarise quotes to make them a little easier to understand.

“Lately with my dissertation I’ve been using it to summarise key critical ideas just to have open as I’m doing literature reviews and analysis.”

It is worth considering while university WiFi is what students will use in their hall of residence, in the university library and in their lectures, it’s not just students who have access to the WiFi and it will be used by staff on campus. 

So whilst one million hits to ChatGPT’s website might not tell us what proportion of those were students, it is illustrative of how quickly ChatGPT has cemented itself within higher education. 

Last month, i reported almost 40 per cent of all UK universities had either banned ChatGPT or were adapting their policies to prohibit using it.

How they might go about doing that is another matter. Those universities can continue to convince themselves ChatGPT prohibition is feasible, those 1,111,211 site visits might beg to differ. 

Olivia and Dylan’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

I got ChatGPT to write my essay to see if I could get a 2:1 from a Russell Group uni

These are the Russell Group unis that have banned students from using ChatGPT

Students at Russell Group universities billed £7 million in library fines over past decade

Featured image credit before edits via Markus Spiske on Unsplash.