Students are acing their homework by turning in machine-generated essays. Good.
Teachers adapted to the calculator. They can certainly adapt to language models.
The latest AI-related alarm: students around the world are using AI models such as GPT-3 to write essays, and getting good grades on them.
I don’t condone cheating. But I think the availability of text generators will force changes to education which, while painful, will prove to be positive.
Consider the threat once posed by the calculator to homework that involved arithmetic. In some cases, the point of such exercises is to learn arithmetic or mathematical principles through practice. Teachers mostly shifted those exercises to the classroom, and prohibited the use of calculators in that setting.
In other cases, homework involved tedious arithmetic, but this was entirely incidental to the learning goals of the exercise (which might be about, say, gravity). After initial reluctance, teachers recognized that it was pointless to make students do these manually. Back when I was in high school, we were forced to use log tables out of the mistaken belief that there is pedagogical value in doing tedious calculations by hand. Mercifully, log tables have now joined the abacus.
The same changes are likely to play out with language models. In some cases, the point of assigning an essay is to teach writing skills or critical thinking. The availability of language models has not obviated these skills. To prevent cheating on this type of exercise, instructors could move them to the classroom. Even better: there are many ways to change the exercise so that the tools aren’t helpful. These changes take advantage of inherent limitations of language models that are unlikely to be fixed soon.
In other cases, essays are pure tedium. In fact, it seems to be this kind of essay where language models are doing particularly well, with assignments such as “Write five good and bad things about biotech”. As an educator, I think this assignment is close to useless if the goal is to learn about biotech. Nor does it teach critical thinking. It’s the equivalent of the log-table drudgery I once faced. If these types of essays are no longer viable, good riddance.
The adjustment will be painful, for sure. The reason instructors assign mind-numbing essays isn’t callousness or incompetence. It’s usually because teachers and adjunct professors are underpaid and overworked, and it’s far easier to ask for “five good and five bad things” rather than to design a question that requires reasoning and fosters learning. And the more tedious the essay, the easier to grade, because it’s enough to scan for keywords.
These are deep and long-standing problems with our educational system. AI tools didn’t create them and banning their use by students won’t solve them.
Update: In the comments, Professor Timothy Burke points to the book Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities exploring the widespread pedagogical misuse of writing for teaching subject matter (as opposed to writing skills and critical thinking), as well as his own analysis of the issue.
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Calculators spawned several generations of people who still can't make change without their electronic device. Cellphones spawned several generations of people who can't read a map or spell. Okay, those skills may be unnecessary now. But as long as writing ability remains the single most important skill for a career in science, having an AI write your essays is a big mistake. Essay assignments in English should be like, "Write an essay of at least N words on a subject that matters to you." If you must dictate a topic, just point out that the grade will depend on relevance to the most recent course material. Writing is not an exercise; it's self-discovery!
I strongly disagree with your argument here; essays are not assigned to teach topics, they are assigned to teach the art of communication via the written word. Learning how to organize thoughts into an essay form also guides students towards rational thinking and how to distinguish between effective and ineffective argumentation.
The use of GPT-3 or any other automated text generator will continue to fail students, who will learn nothing more than how to avoid work and depend on machines to "think" for them. The fact is that a question such as the one you propose does require reasoning and foster learning:
1. An essay requires detailed, specific answers to questions. This requires students to use recall or do research.
2. An essay has a strict form, word count, paragraph or page count, or time limit in which the student must articulate the information while making an argument for or against it's relevance to her answer. This requires mastery of the written word, grammar, punctuation, and brevity.
3. The student must learn or understand some principles of rhetoric to make a plausible or passionate argument.
These are all goals of the essay. Using a pessimistic view of education to support AI technology is a shockingly lackadaisical, backhanded swipe at the future well-being of millions of young people. Fixing broken systems requires more than technical Band-Aids. Worse, it's absolutely the worst argument for the use of AI there is . . . "your teachers are lazy, so it's a fine idea to allow the students to be lazy as well."