Opinion

Is ChatGPT a threat to English class?

ChatGPT 'may signal the end of writing assignments altogether — and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill'

Last year marked a turning point for artificial intelligence, with several new generative AI tools making a splash. OpenAI's ChatGPT chatbot, an AI text generator, is one of the tools that quickly went viral after being released to the public for free last fall. While some reveled in the program's ability to write poems, news articles, and bizarre short stories, others wondered what it could mean for the future of writing.

Almost immediately, educators began sounding off on the possible threat posed to their field. Could ChatGPT be the end of English class as we know it?

'Expect a flood' of cheating students

Many educators have been vocal about the overwhelming wave of cheating that ChatGPT might trigger, particularly regarding the typical five-paragraph or formulaic essays assigned to high school and undergraduate students. "Expect a flood, people, not a trickle," warned Darren Hick, a philosophy professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, in a Facebook post. After discovering that one of his students submitted an alarmingly well-constructed essay they got from the AI tool, Hick vented about how ill-prepared educators are for dealing with AI text generators. 

"Academia did not see this coming. So we're sort of blindsided by it," Hick told The New York Post. He says unlike old-school cheating methods, such as asking a friend to do the work or paying someone else to write an assignment, "this is free and instantaneous." The fact that the software is in its infancy and will continue to learn and improve also makes the professor uncomfortable. "I feel the mix myself between abject terror and what this is going to mean for my day-to-day job — but it's also fascinating, it's endlessly fascinating."

Hicks believes that school administrators need to find a way to address what he is sure to be an onslaught of cheating as the technology grows more advanced. Some suggest that teachers return to the tradition of handwritten assignments. As far as his classroom goes, Hick expects to "institute a policy stating that if I believe material submitted by a student was produced by AI, I will throw it out and give the student an impromptu oral exam on the same material."

ChatGPT will be 'the end of writing assignments altogether'

Some teachers think it's too late to combat the threat of advanced AI text generators, leading to the inevitable demise of writing assignments. Daniel Herman has taught high school English for 12 years and is "astounded by what ChatGPT can produce." In an essay for The Atlantic, Herman wrote that ChatGPT "may signal the end of writing assignments altogether — and maybe even the end of writing as a gatekeeper, a metric for intelligence, a teachable skill." He warns that the AI tool will "drastically change" the lives of him and his fellow educators. Herman used to preach that "a basic competence in writing is an absolutely essential skill," but he's unsure if that remains true. "It's no longer obvious to me that my teenagers actually will need to develop this basic skill. "

High school teacher and author Ben Berman also thinks "high school writing, as we know it, is doomed." Instead of trying to combat the use of AI in schools by investing in anti-cheating software or resorting to handwritten assignments, Berman hopes that teachers "let this new technology disrupt the systems that encourage students to think of school as a game."

Others fear that ChatGPT will kill traditional writing assignments in higher education as well. Author and former professor Stephen Marche called the undergraduate essay "the way we teach children how to research, think, and write" in The Atlantic, but believes the "entire tradition is about to be disrupted from the ground up." He predicts it will take at least a decade for academia to catch up: "two years for the students to figure out the tech, three more years for the professors to recognize that students are using the tech, and then five years for university administrators to decide what, if anything, to do about it." 

Kevin Bryan, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, tweeted in shock over ChatGPT's capabilities, declaring, "You can no longer give take-home exams/homework." After testing the tool's ability to write graduate-level responses, he concluded, "the OpenAI chat is frankly better than the average MBA at this point." 

AI is the future, and teachers should embrace it

Despite the pervasive fear of AI phasing out writing, some educators believe that it will force them to reimagine the writing process. In a guest post for Inside Higher Ed, Marc Watkins, a University of Mississippi professor, wrote that students and teachers "will come to use this technology to augment the writing process, not replace it." Watkins said that it is imperative that educators "teach our students about these models, how to use them ethically, and what it will mean for their writing process." He warns against letting fear dictate educators' response to the tech. He asked, "What message would we send our students by using AI-powered detectors to curb their suspected use of an AI writing assistant, when future employers will likely want them to have a range of AI-related skills and competencies?"

In an essay for Chalkbeat, Ben Talsma, a learning solution specialist for Van Andel Institute for Education, agrees that it is best to prepare students "for the world they'll inherit." He believes "it will become increasingly important for humans to edit AI-generated work" over the next few years. He recounts similar pushback from math teachers when the calculator first emerged and said it's human nature to fear technology that "renders previously important skills obsolete." Still, he remains convinced that if educators let their fears cloud their thinking, they will "ignore the history of technology and the possibilities offered by AI."

New York Times columnist Kevin Roose urges educators to resist the urge to ban ChatGPT in their classrooms. "Instead, I believe schools should thoughtfully embrace ChatGPT as a teaching aid — one that could unlock student creativity, offer personalized tutoring, and better prepare students to work alongside AI systems as adults."

ChatGPT doesn't mark the end of English class, but it should make teachers rethink the traditional essay

"ChatGPT doesn't mark the end of high school English class, but it can mark the end of formulaic, mediocre writing performance as a goal for students and teachers," writes Forbes contributor Peter Greene. Greene, who taught English for 39 years, said, "ChatGPT should kill a certain type of writing, of which the college admission essay is one conspicuous example." Greene believes "high school writing instruction has drifted in the direction of performative faux writing" and welcomes the end of the formulaic essay as "long overdue." 

Adam Stevens, a longtime teacher based in New York City, argues that the best way to discourage students from using ChatGPT to cheat is to move away from formulaic writing based on rubrics. "We've trained a whole generation of kids to pursue rubric points and not knowledge," he said in an interview for Chalkbeat. Instead, he encourages "assigning them work that is inviting them to explore things worth knowing." He believes ChatGPT is only a threat to educators who push rubric-based assignments over innovative approaches to nurture critical thinking.

In a blog post, educator Trevor Muir wrote, "ChatGPT is not going to end English class, but I think it will change it." He also sees the rapidly advancing generation of AI tools as an opportunity for teachers to change the type of assignments they typically give students. "We all know that writing five-paragraph essays is not part of the daily routine for most adults. So maybe it's time that ship sails off into the sunset." 

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