Do Androids Dream of Electric Essays? AI in the English Classroom

Rise of the Machines

The term artificial intelligence was coined as early as 1956, at a conference in Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. After a brief flurry of activity, government interest – and funding – dropped off dramatically until the 1980s, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that IBM’s Deep Blue caught the public eye when it defeated chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

But in recent years one particular Artificial Intelligence – GPT-3 – has started to rise into a powerful tool used across many fields, from industry to education. GPT-3 uses “deep learning” to model and reproduce language. Essentially, that means that it takes in and processes data such as words and images, and can use that data to create something new. GPT-3, originally created by OpenAI and then released to developers, is now being used to write blogs, copy for advertisements, and even code. GPT-4 is currently under development, and other AIs such as Google’s DeepMind project Gato, and its image creating Imagen are already here.

The technology isn’t going anywhere, and although it’s not perfect (and some would point out not actually intelligent), it’s getting better every day. The implications for education as a whole are huge, but there are some specifics for English teachers I’d love to explore further.

GPT-3 uses deep learning and neural networks to generate text
Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com

AI in the English Classroom

There are two main areas I think are particularly worth of discussion in the English classroom: the use of Artificial Intelligence to write essays, and the impact of AI generated content on our students’ ability to read critically. Deepfakes, images from software like Imagen, and AI written articles all have the potential to mislead users in much the same way as human-generated fake news. I’ll write more about that in another post, but for now I’m going to focus on the impact of AI on essay writing.

Robo-essays and spinners

Many free and pay-per-word sites are now offering essay writing services underpinned by GPT-3. A quick search will pull up dozens of such sites and some – like Jasper.ai – are increasingly marketing across social media platforms and targeting students in secondary and tertiary. Most of these operate on the same premise: the user inputs an essay title and the software pulls content from the internet together into a unique essay. Spinners operate in a slightly different manner, taking an original text and “spinning” or paraphrasing it into a new text.

I’ve been playing around with both, and though the results are far from perfect, I’ve produced some passable essays – notably, they also pass Turnitin’s plagiarism checker as “original” work.

Here’s an example, based on the prompt Exploring the importance of community in Emily St John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven

Community is important to the plot of Station Eleven because it is the reason why the characters are still fighting even though they are apart. Without the community, the characters would not be able to survive. For example, the characters would not be able to get food, or they would not be able to find shelter. Additionally, the plot of Station Eleven would not be as compelling if the characters were not fighting together.

AI paragraph written with smodin.io

And another, this time for Pride and Prejudice, with the prompt In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen criticises her society’s expectations around marriage. Do you agree?

Austen’s critique of society’s expectations around marriage is evident in Pride and Prejudice. Austen clearly shows that the Bennet family falls victim to societal norms and pressures around marrying well. In particular, Jane critiques her father for insisting that she marry Mr. Bingley despite knowing very little about him. She also argues against Mrs Bennett’s insistence that all five daughters must marry wealthy men.

AI paragraph written with smodin.io

Honestly, I’d give them a generous 4/10. Using this particular app, there’s no way to specify that the writer should include direct evidence. The AI also makes frequent errors that need human correction; like a sloppy journalist who hasn’t checked their sources the AI frequently pulls in secondary evidence and sometimes totally fabricates pieces of information.

But this is a free platform. I found it by searching for “AI essay writer”, and within 30 seconds I had my 4/10 essay. Applying the principle of least effort, I can imagine many students – particularly those for whom English is a subject they do only because it’s compulsory – rushing towards these online services.

But can we blame them?

When the technology reaches a point at which the text it produces is indistinguishable from, or even better than, our students’ writing, then perhaps the focus needs to shift to why we require them to write these kinds of essays. Here in Victoria, English is compulsory in one form or another right through until Year 12. As an English teacher for over a decade and a half, I obviously think that’s a great idea. The subject teaches important skills of analysis, critical thinking, discussion and debate. But in practice I know that maybe 6 out of my 22 Year 12 students are there because they want to be, and the others because they have to be.

From the student’s perspective, the appeal of getting a machine to do the work for you is huge. For years students have been finding ways of gaming the essay writing system, from straight up copying and plagiarism, to purchasing essays online, to getting other people to write their essays for them. This is just a logical next step. So I come back to the question I asked before: can we blame them for using these freely available and increasingly sophisticated services? Of course not. Putting aside the moral high ground for a second, and the ethics of cheating and plagiarism, I don’t think it’s reasonable to blame students for trying to find ways to short circuit a system that isn’t designed for many of them.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

What’s the point of an essay anyway?

So here’s another question, just to kick the hornet’s next a little harder. Why do we get students to write essays? To develop skills of argument and communication? To demonstrate knowledge? To express thoughts in a written form? Or is it because the system requires the essay – both in secondary and tertiary – as a reliable and familiar mode of assessment?

In truth, it’s all of the above and more. I’m not against essays: personally, I love reading and writing essays. I enjoy the winding, complex arguments of long-form nonfiction and the short, concise soapboxing of an opinion piece. But I am not my students. Some of them may choose – like me – to go through years of Literature at university, and then on to teaching English, or further study, or writing themselves. But most of them won’t. I think it’s time that the essay was revisited as the pinnacle of assessment in the English classroom, and I think that the advent of increasingly sophisticated AI might just help in that process.

Alternate futures

I don’t have any mysterious powers of prophecy, but it seems to me that there are a few ways the system might react. From most pessimistic to most optimistic, here are a few:

  • Scenario 1: Acknowledging that students can go online and get free AI written essays, the education system responds by a total ban on technology: a little like banning phones in classrooms because they’re distracting, rather than educating students on the appropriate use of technology. All essays must now be written by hand, preferably under timed conditions. The system rejects AI like antibodies attacking a foreign object.
  • Scenario 2: Schools adopt a blended approach where students must draft extensively by hand and in class before being allowed to type up final essays. Final submissions are checked against drafted materials closely and at great expense to teacher time in an attempt to authenticate work. Some students are canny enough to know that a teacher with 20+ in a class can’t be watching everything all the time, and copying an AI essay by hand as a “first draft” is a pretty good option.
  • Scenario 3: English teachers, being the generally progressive and forward-thinking bunch that we are, acknowledge that the problem isn’t going away any time soon. We start directing our teaching more towards the purpose(s) of essay writing, and the ethics of cheating. Knowing that for some students the essay will never be an appropriate form of assessment, we find alternate ways to check their knowledge and skills.
  • Scenario 4: The system reaches a point where the obvious advantages and ubiquity of AI writing outweigh the desire to hold students (and teachers) accountable through outmoded assessment methods. Writing is still taught as an expressive art, as something with mental health benefits, and as a tool for articulating thought and communicating. It is no longer used just as a form of assessment.

I’m being a little glib, but in reality I think in many ways we’re already at scenario 3. English teachers have been differentiating outcomes for students forever, for example by allowing some students to present orally rather than in writing, or to use scribes or other assistive aids. What we need is more systemic support in addressing the inequities of the essay assessment at the top end of school. As a Year 12 teacher in Victoria I often have a very limited range of things I can do to adjust the final essay assessment. It’s the kind of system that makes defaulting to “cheating” almost inevitable for some students.

Next week I’ll take a look at the impact of AI on critical literacy. If you enjoyed this post, then join the mailing list to stay up to date.

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4 responses to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Essays? AI in the English Classroom”

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