As publicly accessible artificial intelligence (AI) technology grows in popularity, the development of AI writing tools is raising concerns among teachers.
Over the last few weeks, many educators who have experimented with the latest version of this technology, called ChatGPT, and have quickly realised that it has worrying implications for traditional student essays.
Right now, students can sign up to AI programs like ChatGPT and, in just a few seconds, they can produce a full essay on any given topic.
What is more, these essays are so well-written that teachers are often unable to tell the difference between real student work and AI-made essays. In fact, some students have already been fooling their teachers and submitting such work undetected.
Therefore, there is a growing need for teachers to be aware of the current trends in AI programs and what they mean for the classroom.
Thankfully, there are things that educators can do right now to minimise their impacts on student work.
What is ChatGPT?
ChatGPT is the latest in a growing number of natural language processing (NLP) tools developed by technology companies like OpenAI. ChatGPT is a variant of the GPT-3 language model, which is a machine learning system that can generate human-like text.
AI like ChatGPT are programs that are designed to mimic human conversation. Online programs like this are able to understand and respond to a wide range of topics and can generate coherently written text.
How AI programs work
Many people are surprised to learn that AI programs like this have been around for a while. For the last few years, people have been able to pay a monthly subscription to websites like Jasper AI which has allowed them to create several thousand-word essays on any topic in a matter of seconds.
The ability for a computer program to generate an extended piece of writing that is both coherent and detailed on any topic is genuinely impressive. In fact, many companies have begun utilising them to create advertising copy and online articles.
AI can achieve this impressive feat because it draws upon the internet itself as its knowledge base. These programs access a range of websites, extract what it believes are the key terms, definitions, and relevant data, and incorporates all of these into automatically created sentences.
As a result, an extended written piece by such programs will generally be accurate and well-written. At this point, both teachers and students realise what this could mean for school assignment work.
Students using AI to write essays
The obvious potential for AI programs to be used to generate essays or other written assignments on behalf of students is concerning. Any learner with internet access and the willingness to pay the required fee can make use of this technology to cheat the educational system.
For example, a student could ask the program to “Write a history essay on the causes and consequences of the Black Death”. Then, in less than 10 seconds, the AI will produce a well-written, 800-word essay on the topic.
What is most alarming to teachers is that, for all intents and purposes, the program has written a completely original piece of work. When put through plagiarism checkers, like Turnitin, it shows as 0% plagiarised.
As teachers, we want to know that our students have understood the content we've covered in class. For many years, written essays were thought to be the best way for students to demonstrate their learning.
Already, social media is abuzz with teachers panicking about the implications AI has on their classes in the coming year. Let's be honest: there is nothing stopping entire classes of students using these online tools to pass essay tasks with no real effort.
Some teachers have already decided that assigning their classes in-class exams instead of take-home assignments is the best ways to avoid the problems that AI programs create.
However, I think the rise of AI tools like this has finally highlighted an underlying problem with traditional history essays that has existed for generations.
In fact, I believe this will act as a catalyst to revolutionising how history essays are done in the classroom: a change that has been needed for a long time.
The weakness of traditional history essays
One of the major weaknesses of traditional student History essays is that they simply required students to regurgitate basic historical information.
For over a century now, teachers have asked students to recount a specific event or period in history. As long as students knew the important names, dates, places, and key concepts, they could incorporate them into their writing. While it took time and effort, such tasks were not intellectually difficult.
In fact, for at least the last two decades, teachers' main concern is that students have been able to complete these assignments by simply rewording information found on Wikipedia. Again, all that the students needed to demonstrate was the key information, rewritten into their own language.
In recent years, students have been able to use some pretty basic AI, such as Quillbot, to automatically rewrite Wikipedia sentences to avoid plagiarism.
The current generation of AI is just simplifying what students have already been doing already: it draws upon basic information provided online and rewords it into comprehensible sentences.
In reality, students have already been relying on the surface-level understanding of topics provided by Wikipedia rather than deeper analysis and critical thinking. AI just makes this process quicker for students.
Educators have known for decades that simply asking students to restate in their own words basic historical information only promotes lower-order thinking.
There have been growing calls for more higher-order thinking in History essay tasks for quite a few years. However, schools and teachers have been reluctant to change outdated tasks like this. In the midst of the increasing workload placed upon educators, it has just been much easier to keep things the same rather than change them.
So, the challenges faced by teachers from the new AI programs might finally be the nudge we need to improve the assessment tasks we give to our students.
A way forward for History essays
Thankfully, there is an essay assessment type that has been available to History teachers which can circumvent the issue of AI generated content: source-based history essays.
There is a key weakness of all AI programs at the moment. Namely, that they do not know how to incorporate historical sources into their writing. Not only can the AI not identify the correct historical sources for any given topic, it also cannot successfully extract key quotes nor incorporate them into a coherent historical argument.
Furthermore, AI does not have the ability to analyse and evaluate such sources, nor synthesise this criticism coherently into its sentences. Simply put, the ability to engage critically with relevant sources is still far too complex for these programs.
While AI algorithms are able to process large amounts of data and identify patterns and trends, they are unable to incorporate information from sources.
For example, an AI algorithm may be able to identify the most commonly mentioned words in a primary source document, but it may not be able to fully understand the meaning or implications of these words in the broader context of the document or the time period in which it was written.
As a result, source-based history essays have been the best higher-order thinking tasks available for students and teachers. The fact that there are multiple layers of complexity required by these tasks means that it will be a long time before AI can mimic them.
Ultimately, the analysis and evaluation of historical sources requires a deep understanding of historical context and the ability to think critically about the information presented. While AI algorithms can be helpful tools in this process, they cannot replace the skills and expertise of trained historians.
For those teachers who want to both avoid the problems created by AI, and genuinely engage with higher order thinking with their students, source-based history essays are the best solution.
The fear of student use of emerging AI technology to submit work that is not their own is should not keep teachers awake at night, worrying. Instead, it should encourage us to focus on tasks which is a much more genuine demonstration of their learning in the classroom.
Instead of using out-dated, knowledge-based essays, we should be promoting critical thinking through source-based essays.
Overall, the use of AI in student history essays highlights the obvious weaknesses of traditional class essays and provides an alternative approach that encourages critical thinking and analysis.
By focusing on the use of primary and secondary sources as the core element of historical essays, students can develop a deeper understanding of the past and the skills they need to succeed in the modern world.
As a result, History teachers should not be concerned about the impact of AI generated essays, as long as we shift the focus of our teaching to the critical use of historical sources in our classrooms.