6th December 2023 1:07 pm
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SA students embrace AI amid loneliness, anxiety – survey

  • A new survey from edtech company Chegg shows that South Africans in tertiary education are cautiousless embracing generative AI tools.
  • One in three students say they use tools like ChatGPT at least once a day.
  • While generally happy, most students say they struggle to find new friends, meet people and get much sleep.

A new survey has shown that one in three South Africans in tertiary education have used generative artificial intelligence (AI) to help with their studies. Moreover, around one in three say that they input a question into a generative AI chatbot at least once a day or more.

These are a few highlights of the survey – Global Student Survey 2023 – launched by Chegg.org, the non-profit arm of edtech company Chegg, in order to gauge the hopes and concerns of new graduates in a world where generative AI is turning education on its head.

Why would Chegg care? The company has been working on its own generative AI chatbot aimed squarely at helping students with their educations in the hopes of luring some away from the likes of ChatGPT, which has taken bled potential customers from Chegg en masse in a short amount of time.

The survey results are based on the polling of over 11 000 undergraduate students aged 18-21 years across 15 countries, including 503 students in South Africa. Questions in this survey covered students’ views on learning in the age of AI, skills and careers, and their health, wellbeing and social attitudes.

On the topic of what South African students use generative AI for, majority (62 percent) said they use platforms like ChatGPT for research during assignments and project, as well as to better understand a concept or subject.

More than half agreed that AI can help them learn a subject faster and around 45 percent said the technology can help them overcome their learning differences. More than two-thirds of all South Africans surveyed said they thought universities in the country should change the way they assess students now that generative AI tools are common and freely accessible.

The survey did not include a question on how many use generative AI tools to write their assignments for them, a problem that is currently plaguing academia worldwide, not just in South Africa.

A vast majority of South Africans students said that they would like their university curricula to include training in AI tools in order for their degrees to stay “relevant to their future career.” Around 11 percent of students said that generative AI would completely make their degrees useless, the highest percentage of all countries surveyed alongside the US.

The biggest concern for students in the use of AI tools is on the accuracy of the information they are receiving from these tools, especially as they are prone to hallucinations and bias.

“Although students are starting to adopt GenAI to support their learning, it’s clear they see room for improvement. Students want GenAI learning tools that provide accurate, reliable study support. Crucially, according to our survey, the top priority for improving the technology among all those surveyed in South Africa was the involvement of human expertise. An analysis of our internal research found that students are mainly using GenAI for writing tasks, and are not yet fully leveraging the technology for STEM subjects,” added Heather Hatlo Porter, head of Chegg.org.

“By elevating the voices of students and listening to their concerns, we can gain profound insights into how to support them. Crucially, as we enter this new age of AI, we will better understand how to harness the full potential of this technology, enabling students to learn how they want, what they want, when they want, and in their preferred format – which will ultimately help them on their lifelong learning journey.” 

The survey also took a look at the general wellbeing of students in South Africa now in the time of abject turbulence in the local job market, which will no doubt be affected by generative AI in some significant way in the near future.

It found that one in two South African students struggles to make new friends and meet people, while two out of three say they do not sleep enough and experience daily feelings of anxiety. Concerningly, over half of the 503 local undergraduates surveyed said they have experience academic burnout.

This is a trend that is seen throughout the survey, applicable to students in most countries that took part.

However, generally, the survey found that South African students are, all things considered, quite happy at 73 percent, while around the same amount said they feel optimistic about the future.

One in two students said they believed that South Africa was a good place to live, echoing previous research on how many students would like to leave South Africa and work overseas – spoiler: it’s a lot. A 2022 study found that more than half are hoping to emigrate and find a job in another country instead.

“Our Global Student Survey shows that students around the world are stressed, lack sleep, and have trouble meeting new friends. There is a pressing need for robust mental health support, so learners can make the most of their education and face the future with confidence,” said Porter.

To read up on the full results of the Chegg.org survey, click here.

Luis Monzon

Luis Monzon

Journalist. Covering education, AAA gaming and consumer tech. Reach me at Luis@htxt.co.za.

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