A state-of-the-art language model has been making headlines for its ability to generate human-like text with remarkable accuracy.
I didn’t write that last sentence — OpenAI’s ChatGPT did.
What ChatGPT said about itself is true — it has an uncanny ability to replicate human writing.
The new technology, introduced at the end of November, has created a buzz, especially in the education world. Educators are as apprehensive about its downfalls as they are excited about its possibilities.
Original writing and thinking are at stake. But some argue that there’s plenty to gain, too — a valuable tool for brainstorming, teaching, and communicating.
“It’s kind of a crisis, but I also think that crises afford opportunities,” Jeffrey Wilhelm, a distinguished professor of English education and director of The Boise State Writing Project at Boise State University, said.
For their part, students are already turning to ChatGPT for writing inspiration and ideas, and as a way to cheat on writing assignments.
National education publications have published numerous articles about it already, covering responses ranging from bans on the technology to calls for its use in the classroom.
In Idaho, teachers and professors — especially in English departments — have started weighing how to navigate the new technology.
Plagiarism is a major concern
Within weeks of ChatGPT’s release, Idaho students were using the technology to plagiarize papers.
Wilhelm knows because they told him about it.
Go here to see examples of ChatGPT’s writing and how it works.
The writing assignments they’d been given were uninteresting, they said, and they didn’t care to do them themselves. They turned in ChatGPT’s work without it being detected, and they got good grades.
Students are like most people, Wilhelm said: “If you can see a shortcut, you take it.”
It’s just the newest technological advancement that makes it easier for students to escape writing assignments.
Students used to cheat by accessing old essays archived in fraternity or sorority basements, or those of their friends, said Jessica Winston, the chair of the English and Philosophy department at Idaho State University. Then there were online essay mills, where students could view and purchase essays, copying parts or all of them. Now, their computers can instantly write one-of-a-kind essays for them based on the unique prompt they’ve been given.
“ChatGPT is a new world,” Winston said.
Plagiarism can carry heavy consequences, ranging from having to rewrite a paper, to getting a zero, to failing a class or even being expelled. It all depends on the teacher, the student’s grade level and history of cheating, and the institution’s policies.
And just as plagiarism-enabling technologies have advanced, so have detection technologies. Many teachers, at both the K-12 and university levels, use technology like No Red Ink, Grammarly, Google’s originality checker, and TurnItIn, to detect plagiarism.
Plus, a Princeton student recently developed a ChatGPT detector, GPTZero, but acknowledged that it doesn’t catch the AI every time.
Wilhelm recently tested out GPTZero, and it concluded that an essay he submitted (written by ChatGPT) had a 60% chance of being written by a human — so it’s not foolproof.
Perhaps the best plagiarism detection tool of all is a teacher’s relationship with the student. As teachers get to know students and read more of their writing, they can more easily identify writing that does not reflect a given student’s voice.
It’s not all bad – ChatGPT could be a fruitful tool for teaching, grading, and writing
Jon Buckridge, an English teacher at Nampa High School, is thrilled about the opportunities ChatGPT offers.
“Technology is moving at an unprecedented rate, but rather than sounding the alarms, we need to learn to embrace these changes and figure out how to make it work for us,” he said.
He envisions English language learners turning to ChatGPT to model English sentence structure and vocabulary, for example. And when students are short on ideas, they can see what ChatGPT comes up with and draw inspiration.
When technologies like word processing and citation generators came out, people were similarly alarmed about how they would impact the education process. But, both have become useful tools, Buckridge said. “If you choose to view (ChatGPT) through a positive lens … rather than demonizing it, it can only be a positive.”
“Technology is moving at an unprecedented rate, but rather than sounding the alarms, we need to learn to embrace these changes and figure out how to make it work for us.” — Jon Buckridge, English teacher at Nampa High School
Wilhelm pointed out that teachers can use the technology to their advantage, too. He frequently spends time in K-12 schools, training teachers. Just last week, a teacher wasn’t sure how to respond to a student paper. So, she put the paper into ChatGPT and asked what it would say.
“She got a couple pieces of advice that she hadn’t realized she could give,” Wilhelm said.
And Winston said she could imagine it becoming a helpful teaching tool. For example, a teacher might ask ChatGPT to create a thesis statement, and then students could practice finding evidence to support the claim.
“We are not fully aware of what it can do in terms of plagiarism, but we’re also not fully aware of what it can do in terms of pedagogical innovation,” Winston said. “We need to be attentive, but we also need to not be alarmist.”
Original writing is essential to learning
Still, Wilhelm is wary.
“As is typical with technology, people get excited about all the possibilities, and they don’t think about the downsides and danger,” he said. “That’s a challenge right now. How do we use it to enliven and extend the learning in our classrooms, but control for the downsides, which … are considerable?”
Writing is a form of thinking, and it helps students become more competent, powerful, and informed. When students don’t do their own writing, they miss out on all that.
“That’s the really nefarious underbelly of all this,” Wilhelm said. “That’s a very dangerous place for a person or culture to go.”
“How do we use (ChatGPT) to enliven and extend the learning in our classrooms, but control for the downsides, which … are considerable?” – Jeffrey Wilhelm, distinguished professor of English education at Boise State University
Amber Ford, the chair of the English department at Vallivue High School, said writing is about much more than spelling, grammar, or punctuation. It’s about critical thinking, argument, and logic.
“Our society desperately needs critical thinkers, and we need kids who can think through big issues and be logical thinkers,” she said.
The current generation of students has grown up with technology and seems to take plagiarism less seriously. If a tool is out there and available, students don’t understand why they shouldn’t use it.
“That idea of authorship and authenticity is kind of being blurred there,” she said. “The plagiarism battle is something that we’ve been fighting for a long time, but with new technology it’s becoming more and more difficult and time-consuming (to prevent and identify).”
And, with ChatGPT predicted to improve over time, the technology isn’t going away anytime soon.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Wilhelm said.
Educators will have to adapt.
Teachers rethink writing assignments and instruction in the age of ChatGPT
If boring writing assignments spark students to outsource their work to ChatGPT, maybe part of the solution is writing prompts that excite and motivate students.
“It’s going to require rethinking the assignments we give, making sure they’re nuanced and interesting and that kids get to stake their identity by doing it,” Wilhelm said. “Kids want to do things that count in the world.”
If teachers are the only people to read a piece of writing, students are less likely to see it as worthwhile. But if peers read it or it gets published for a wider audience, students will take more ownership over the writing, Wilhelm said.
Winston said creating assignments that are not easy to plagiarize would help, too. For example, she might assign students to consider two different productions of a Shakespeare play, choose a similar scene in both, and compare and contrast them.
“It’s unlikely that ChatGPT would know those two performances and be able to do that kind of work,” she said.
Students are more likely to cheat if they don’t understand an assignment’s purpose or question whether “they’re going to get the help they need to be successful,” Wilhelm said.
Teachers should explain what students stand to gain from completing each assignment. And teachers should break writing assignments into smaller chunks and give students time to write in class. That ensures a teacher is there to help with the writing process, and shows that the writing process is important and worth spending time on.
“We have to create a culture of respect and trust and integrity and expectation that we do our own work here and we’re here to grow our own capacity and become our best possible selves,” Wilhelm said. “If we allow anybody or something else to do our work, we’re not growing, we’re not developing.”