Now AI is doing student writing | Tom Daccord | 5 Min Read

For the past 15 months, educators have understandably been immersed in the challenge that COVID-19 presents for teaching and learning in schools. Largely ignored throughout this period has been Artificial Intelligence (AI), the most consequential long-term learning challenge that educators will likely face. For years we’ve known that AI will create severe dislocations in our society and experts have warned that education “will be on the frontline.” Yet, AI has been limited to tutoring software in most schools, and most educators have not felt the impact of AI directly — until now.  

Just last month, a new AI tool was released called GPT-3. “Generative Pre-trained Transformer, Version 3” is the largest language model ever created and absorbs and analyzes an enormous amount of text on the Internet and in various publications. But what really impresses is its ability to write stories, create characters, provide sensory description, craft poetic language, and more. GPT-3 requires only a small amount of text from you to write language “impressively” and “human-sounding.” 

Sudowrite is a publicly-available GPT-3 writing tool that has garnered attention since being featured in a recent New Yorker article. At the heart of Sudowrite is its “Wormhole” feature. Once a user inserts a passage of text (100 words minimum) Wormhole takes what is written and generates a new passage of text. The user can accept the Sudowrite-generated text entirely, edit it, or delete it completely.  

The user also has the option of directing Sudowrite to adopt a particular “genre” of writing: neutral, ominous, funny, or extraordinary. So, Sudowrite can help you write in a style that might not come naturally to you. 

The highlighted text on the left is from an article I wrote recently. The text on the right is written by Sudowrite based on my input.

Sudowrite positions itself as a “brainstorming partner,” especially when writing fiction. And in many ways it is.  For instance, Sudowrite offers a “Twist” feature that helps take a user’s writing in “unexpected directions,” by providing five different ideas for a story to follow. Sudowrite also helps with character development. After a writer has introduced a few characters, Sudowrite can suggest other characters and even their interrelationships. Sudowrite will also suggest what might happen to these characters in the story. 

GPT-3 advocates draw a parallel with how digital tools are used in the world of art.  Years ago, using Photoshop to create art was deemed “cheating”. Today, we recognize that Photoshop and other digital tools open a whole new realm of creative possibilities for artists.  Sudowrite advocates believe that GPT-3 will be seen in the same light one day. They point out that for a long time writers have lacked the creative tools available to other artists. GPT-3 changes that landscape and opens up a myriad of new creative possibilities.

Moreover, Sudowrite helps take a lot of the drudgery out of writing with its prompts and suggestions. Writing is a chore and often joyless for many writers (present company included). It can be motivating, even invigorating, to be introduced to a new story twist, a new character, new sensory details, and poetic imagery. It can help writers develop more confidence to try out new ideas and attempt new styles. Novice writers, in particular, may find comfort in having a personalized guide available to suggest writing opportunities and to provide feedback. In all, Sudowrite can help make writing a more joyful experience for many writers.

In all, Sudowrite’s ability to work with the tiniest seed of an idea makes it a potential boon for the writer wondering where to begin, how to build, or what might be next. But it can help in any kind of writing. Sudowrite works well with nonfiction writers, whether their writing topic is new for them or familiar. In fact, it could be helpful for all writers, no matter the field, because it is so focused on the words that are actually written. 

Oh, Sudowrite wrote that last paragraph. Not me.

And herein lies the great challenge for educators. Sudowrite can do much of the writing for students.  The New Yorker article claims that Sudowrite can “take an ‘A’ essay, change a few words in the first paragraph by pushing buttons three times, and you have an essay that fits the assignment.” It’s not really that simple, but educators may be hard-pressed to determine what has been written by a student and what has been written by GPT-3.

For decades, teachers and school administrators have relied on Google searches and plagiarism detection software to identify plagiarized work. But with GPT-3, the writing a student turns in is not plagiarized. It is original. Indeed, plagiarism detectors have not found any matches online with Sudowrite-generated text and there have been no copyright claims over what Sudowrite generates.

GPT-3 advocates point out that Sudowrite can only generate text based on the parameters that a user provides. In other words, “garbage in, garbage out.” Users have to drive the tools; Sudowrite does not have agency. So, students will have to skillfully curate and edit Sudowrite’s output. 

That is likely of little comfort to the English Lit teacher trying to figure out if a student’s paper was written by GPT-3. Yet, language teachers have faced a similar challenge. When Google Translate was introduced in 2006, foreign language teachers were unnerved by the possibility of students turning in papers entirely translated from English by a computer. Yet, foreign language teachers have become adept at recognizing writing that’s been created by Google Translate, largely because of its awkward constructions.

The same may come true with GPT-3. But as AI becomes ever more sophisticated, the challenge facing educators will grow. For those teachers who only read student work on occasion — such as the end-of-semester essay — the task of identifying GPT-3 writing may be daunting. But for those educators who read student work regularly, GPT-3 output will be easier to recognize. 

Much remains to be seen, but GPT-3 is one of many enormous ethical and pedagogical AI challenges facing educators in the years to come. As AI advances, educators will likely struggle to manage and leverage it effectively. Yet, cooperative partnerships with machines are happening across many professions. So we must work with educators to leverage AI to enhance student creativity and add value to our pedagogies.

Tom Daccord

Tom Daccord is an international education technology speaker in English, Spanish, and French. He is a former international teacher in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States and co-founder of EdTechTeacher. Over the past 20 years, he has worked with more than 10,000 educators in schools and educational organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Tom resides in Medellin, Colombia.

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