Most of us remember the awe we felt when using the Internet for the first time. It seemed as if the world was at our fingertips, and in many ways it was. New businesses and industries sprung up worldwide, while others were made redundant. The world would never be the same again.
On November 30, 2022, few might have realised it at the time, but another such moment arrived. And if early indications are anything to go by, it promises to be just as historic – and disruptive.
Within 5 days of being launched ChatGPT, a conversational language model developed by San Francisco tech company OpenAI, reached 1 million users. By comparison, it took the Apple iPhone 2.4 months to reach that milestone.
Upon a quick testing of its features, it’s easy to see the allure of this technology.
Unlike typing a command into Google and being directed to a website, the generative pre-trained transformer (GPT) acts as a personal assistant of sorts that, if asked to, can generate humanlike responses to any question that are convincing enough to fool any teacher or university professor.
Imagine for a moment you’re a 17-year-old school student who has just remembered that your 3,000-word essay is due first thing tomorrow morning. In a panic, you login to ChatGPT. You ask the chatbot to write the essay, using specific prompts that address the nuances of the topic. For good measure, you ask it to make the essay look like it was written by a 17-year-old student. In under 30 seconds, your essay is done.
And therein lies the rub. If ChatGPT can do the heavy lifting when it comes to our thinking, what does this mean for schools and universities that are painstakingly trying to improve studnets' creative and critical thinking?
Is ChatGPT the death of the student essay?
The implications of this technology are not lost on Professor Phillip Dawson, Associate Director at Deakin University’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning.
“If we keep doing what we’ve always done in assessment, ChatGPT will completely wreck our ability to judge what students are capable of,” Professor Dawson told The Educator.
“[ChatGPT] can produce a mediocre response for most tasks at a higher education level, and a very good response for some. And that’s only today. AI writing tools are currently the least capable they will ever be.”
Professor Dawson said the big assessment challenge for 2023 will be how to design assessment that still enables educators to build an accurate picture of where students are at, even if they use ChatGPT.
While ChatGPT and other AI programs have capability to generate answers, they can only access information from when they were trained and do not yet have access to the internet to browse or research a topic.
AI software also has issues with credible referencing. For example, if an essay written by AI is submitted, existing programs such as Google and Turnitin can quickly detect plagiarised or common answers.
James Thorley, the regional vice president APAC at Turnitin, has over 14 years of experience in the education technology sector. He says that while ChatGPT is another step forward for AI’s writing capabilities it’s unlikely to change everything overnight in the context of education and assessment.
“It can write well, but despite the ability to contextualise and learn from the information it is provided, there’s no absolute guarantee the output will be accurate,” Thorley told The Educator.
“As these types of tech and AI develop further, all levels of education will need to define the parameters of their permitted use, and where they potentially fit among forms of misconduct such as contract cheating and text spinners, in order to preserve a culture of academic integrity.”
Thorley said students look to technology for shortcuts for many reasons, but ultimately hurt their own future prospects if they don’t engage in assessments fully, missing valuable learning opportunities.
“Even those that manage to fly under the radar risk impeding their professional development once they’ve started their careers, because they’ve skipped the opportunity to be assessed (and improve) effectively. They might enter the workforce less ‘job ready’”
Can ChatGPT be trusted in the hands of students?
Some question whether powerful AI tools should even be in the hands of the general public, let alone school-aged students, but Professor Dawson says banning ChatGPT would not work.
“Software is a very hard thing to restrict – and it would make those countries that try to ban it less competitive and productive,” Professor Dawson said.
“Educational institutions that ban it would graduate students who might be able to do more by hand, but they would be able to do much less in the world of work where all their peers know how to use AI well.”
Profesor Dawson said it’s easy for those in the ‘education bubble’ to think of these tools purely in terms of their impacts on education, but pointed out that the impact of these tools on society is far broader.
“I want my students to know how to use the tools carefully and critically, and they can only develop that capability through using them.”
Thorley thinks we are now beyond the stage of whether or not tools like ChatGPT should be available to the general public.
“Large language models and the tech built on them are in the public domain in many forms, and will continue to be. The more important question now is how academia adapts to their presence,” he said.
“Educators should always think about how to design assessments, whatever the format, to minimise opportunities for misconduct.”
On its own, ChatGPT doesn’t change much in the short term, says Thorley.
“Essay mills and similar cheating services already exist and are unfortunately being used at increasing scale, so ChatGPT is yet another flavour in the mix for those tempted by academic misconduct.”
So what will AI mean for the future of essay writing?
Professor Dawson said that as AI becomes more sophisticated, and widely used, education institutions need to “rapidly and radically rethink how they assess students”.
“One guiding question for us should be: what do people alone need to do in a world where tools like chatGPT exist, and what do they need to do with those tools?”
Thorley says that in the longer term, the concept of ‘assessment’ must adapt to ensure it remains relevant.
“Moving to more authentic assessment – such as assessment for learning, rather than just assessment of learning – will be crucial. The essay, specifically, has multiple roles within assessment; some of these may be replaced over time, but others can very much be strengthened in the future,” he said.
“Our partnerships with academia are built on the premise of helping educators optimise the learning experience for an evolving world.”
Thorley said Turnitin focuses on ensuring authenticity and integrity throughout every assessment and learning experience, and helping to transform what assessment can be.
“This includes distilling powerful, actionable and cross-institution data insights to enrich decision-making, and empowering educators and students to do their best work.”