Why we should not be afraid of AI-written essays
Posted by Greten on 21 Jan 2023 under Thoughts
Writing has been a regular part of a student's workload. From the how and why questions in exercises and quizzes to research-intensive term papers and thesis, writing a paragraph or several cohesive paragraphs on a given topic are among the deliverables that a K to 12 or college student must produce.
Two weeks ago, I attended a webinar hosted by Akadasia titled "Can technology take over the role of a teacher?" While the focus is mainly on the use of technology on the side of teachers, it also dwells on how the students can use technology to accomplish their school works. In particular, students can now use text-based AI language models, such as ChatGPT, to achieve some of their school work.
Some teachers are worried about this technology. How can they know if their students are using artificial intelligence, or AI, to generate their essays?
Human or AI written, why does it even matter?
If you are a professional writer, why should it matter if you "outsource" 50 to 80 percent of your work to AI? As long as the article is coherent, factually correct, and perhaps entertaining, people will read and learn from it. Of course, like some teachers, some editors and publishers dislike AI-generated content. If possible, they will look for clues that it is AI-generated and confront the writer about it.
Some people dislike anything they perceive as artificial, even if the difference lies entirely in the production process and not in the final product. For example, when scientists were able to produce diamonds in a laboratory setup, the diamond-mining industries developed procedures to differentiate natural diamonds from synthetic ones. However, as years passed and the technology to produce synthetic diamonds improved, these tests began to fail. Moreover, some people explicitly look for synthetic diamonds because of the environmental issues and human rights violations that commonly happen in mining diamonds. Removing politics and even ethics from the equation, however, both synthetic and mined diamonds are a cluster of carbon atoms arranged in a crystal matrix structure. In other words, they are both… well… diamonds.
So why did I take a turn from discussing essays to discussing diamonds? The need of some teachers and editors to distinguish between an AI-crafted essay and a human-written essay is like the need to differentiate between synthetic and mined diamonds. The distinction itself is artificial and does not benefit anyone but the few who created and upheld it. An essay or an article is a group of words clustered together to express an idea o transmit information.
So far, and I hope, the reasoning is clear when it comes to articles produced by professional writers or by contributors to magazines or websites. If the piece is coherent, can impart knowledge, and entertain, it should not matter if a human or an AI wrote them. Teachers, however, have different objectives for asking students to write essays. These reasons typically fall into two: writing as a learning device and writing as an assessment tool.
By asking students to write, the teacher hopes they will acquire specific skills or have the knowledge stick to their long-term memory. Writing exercise is a form of active learning, which is usually more efficient than passive learning. The teacher wants the students to develop research skills? Asking them to write a term paper will accomplish that. How about writing skills? Simple essay exercises and term papers can do that as well. Providing the learners with feedback and having them revise their work can help develop writing skills. Do you want them to remember what you just taught for the day? Ask them to write a reflection paper or answer an assignment asking how or why. Recalling and reviewing the lesson so they can answer the question helps them remember the lesson over a longer period. As an assessment tool, you can grade their essay, article, or thesis based on accuracy, coherence, proper citation, and spelling and grammar.
These objectives can be defeated when students start using AI to write their essays. You can no longer tell if their work is a measure of their abilities. If the writing is meant to reinforce learning, it will no longer work because the student does not have to exert effort to remember and reflect on what they learned.
Fighting fire with fire, or rather AI with AI
Due to increasing numbers of students using AI to write essays, a niche market is formed around detecting AI writing. Individuals and companies begin offering applications and web-based services to detect AI writing by using… you guess it… AI technology.
To test if an AI detector works properly, I would try them using three kinds of articles.
- An article generated by ChatGPT
- An article generated by ChatGPT, but subsequently edited
- An article written entirely by human
The detector passed my test if it detected the first article as AI-generated and the last as human-generated. Based on these tests, I recommend the following detectors.
Now, I cannot guarantee that these detectors will always work. It's just that they work for me whenever I use them.
Even OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT, disagrees with using their application to produce students' written assignments. OpenAI has started working on a watermark to make it easier for teachers to detect if a work came from them.1
However, using these AI-detection tools is not 100 percent accurate. For example, it's entirely possible for them to detect an essay that a human wrote without any help from AI as AI-written and for an AI-written essay to be seen as a human essay.
AI-written essay detected as human-written
Going back to the test I made in AI detectors, I still need to address the second article. If an AI-written article was edited, even with the help of other AI tools, AI detectors would still see them as a human-written article. Meaning, a student can still edit an AI-written essay before submitting it to you, and the AI detectors would detect it as human-written. If AI detectors cannot see it, we go back to the original question: why does it even matter if an essay is written by a human or AI? A synthetic diamond and a mined diamond are both diamonds. An AI-written article and a human-written article are both articles.
As a teacher, consider grading your students for their effort to edit their essays. However, if that's the case, you might as well level the playing field by allowing students to use AI rather than telling them not to use it but still ending up grading those who did.
Human-written essays detected as AI-written
On the opposite side, it's possible for a human-written essay to be detected as AI-written. Although as I write this article, I cannot find anything definite aside from a few anecdotal evidence here2 and there.3 However, these few are still too many. Suppose a student submitted an essay that a detector indicates as AI-written, what would you do? Would you confront the student for cheating? Would you give them a failing mark immediately?
An immediate, or what I call a band-aid solution, is to ask them to explain how they work on their essay without it being in their hand. However, you should do this to other students as well, or else they'll wonder why you are asking them to do extra work. If they can explain it in a manner that satisfies your rubrics, then you should pass them. Note that I said satisfied your rubrics and not satisfied you. If you think they cheated, the effect of unconscious bias can be stronger. They may be able to explain their work while it is AI-generated. However, suppose your aim is for them to reflect on what they learned so it can stick to their long-term memory. Being able to explain their work indicates that you actually achieved this objective.
If the work is a term paper, the students must cite references for their work. Meaning, they need to read and edit their work to add the information from cited materials and remove information that AI provided that contradicted the references. That's still a large bulk of work for the student, so you either accept it or ask them to explain their work.
Under no circumstance should you immediately fail your student unless they admitted to using AI and you explicitly told them not to use it. You and your student might end up in court and shell out money for attorneys and expert witnesses.
AI-written essays are now a reality; deal with it
AI is here to stay, and it will continue to improve as years pass by. Instead of restricting technology, teachers should embrace its use and encourage their students to use it. The future belongs to those who can use technology to make work more efficient. A worker who can operate a forklift has a way greater chance of getting a job at a warehouse than a strong guy who can lift crates by hand. Students are now likely to use some AI tools when they enter the workforce. They might as well be knowledgeable on how to use it.
For a long-term solution, you can overhaul your exercises and requirements to still measure the skills you need to measure while allowing students to use AI. For example, do not use long essay assignments to measure your student's abilities to write with proper grammar and do research. Instead, you need to decouple these two objectives instead of cramming them into one task. To measure the student's writing and grammar skills, have them write a shorter essay that they can do inside the classroom using pen and paper. To assess the student's ability to do research, have them write a term paper, instruct them on proper citation, and allow them to use AI. You can grade them based on factual accuracy, coherence, and adequate citation.
For homework assignments meant to reinforce learning rather than measure it, make it optional, and if needed, discourage the use of AI. Not an outright ban; just discourage them from using AI tools. Consider them as a studying technique that you are advising them to use. At the end of the day, you have other assessment tools to measure learning. It's possible for them to learn or to reinforce their knowledge in the way you prescribed or in some different ways.
No need to worry if they "cheat". If you let them use AI, you are actually leveling the playing field and measuring what you can gauge from this requirement. Many students have been cheating on term papers for so long. Entire companies sprout to cater to wealthy students to have someone else work on their school requirements while they party. The worst part is that some teachers are part of this unfair system by moonlighting as writers for essay companies. I never heard any public outcry on the use of these essay companies that are as strong as in the use of AI. At least, ChatGPT is an opportunity equalizer in this regard.
The distinction between AI-written and human-written articles is artificial and does not benefit anyone. As long as an article is coherent, factually correct, and perhaps entertaining, it should not matter if it is written by a human or AI. However, as a teacher, your objective for asking students to write essays is to serve as a learning device or an assessment tool. You would want students to acquire specific skills, such as research and writing skills, and have knowledge stick to their long-term memory. Writing exercises, feedback, and revisions can help with this, and essays can be graded based on accuracy, coherence, proper citation, and spelling and grammar.
When students use AI to write essays, it negatively affects the effectiveness of writing as a learning device and assessment tool. A niche market has formed around detecting AI writing, but these tools are not 100% accurate. Instead of restricting the use of technology, you should embrace it and encourage students to use it.
AI is becoming increasingly prevalent in many aspects of our lives. Instead of restricting its use, you should embrace it and encourage students to learn how to use it. Teachers should focus on assessing students based on specific skills and adjust their assignments to measure them. There is no need to try measuring multiple skills at once using a method that might no longer be reliable because of new technology. Assign homework to reinforce learning, make it optional, and if needed, discourage but not forbid the use of AI tools for them. There is no need to worry about students cheating as using AI tools levels the playing field and allows teachers to measure specific skills.
- Sparkes M. (2022) "OpenAI is developing a watermark to identify work from its GPT text AI", New Scientist, retrieved 21 January 2022
- Shane J. (2022) "Apparently I am a robot ", AI Weirdness, retrieved 21 January 2022
- Plastic-Exam5280 (2022) "False-positive on GPT-2 open AI detector", Reddit, retrieved 21 January 2022
- Brookhart S. M. (1993) "Assessing Student Achievement With Term Papers and Written Reports", Education Measurement, retrieved 21 January 2022
- Eliot L. (2022) "Enraged Worries That Generative AI ChatGPT Spurs Students To Vastly Cheat When Writing Essays, Spawns Spellbound Attention For AI Ethics And AI Law", Forbes, retrieved 21 January 2022
- Wenzel E. (2007) "Synthetic diamonds still a rough cut", CNET, retrieved 21 January 2022
Last updated on 21 Jan 2023.
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