ChatGPT: the end of the essay?

ChatGPT is becoming one of the most talked about developments in AI and machine learning. Although it is still in its infancy, ask it a question, or give it a prompt on its website and you will get an instant ‘human-like’ written response. ChatGPT can be used as a tool to generate text, translate language, answer questions, and even analyse. Early experiments have suggested that the technology can potentially help make everything from marketing and sales to research and development across many industries more efficient – I could have used one of a number of version to write, rewrite, even critique this first paragraph with just a simple instruction and click of the mouse.

Responses to Chat have included pessimistic scenarios about the ‘death of the author’ the culling of research staff/journalists along with retorts that the app continues to make embarrassing mistakes.  Recent examples have shown this remains the case, but as elsewhere, in their desperate battle for supremacy, the tech giants promise improvements. Meanwhile, ‘Generation Z’ which has never known a life without tech, is already putting ‘generative AI’ to use, as it makes its way to social-media platforms like Snapchat and Tok-tok.

Many of the initial responses about the implications for the education sector have also been negative.  Leading the charge, The Daily Mail reported that New York’s education department has banned the tool over ‘concerns about negative impacts on student learning, and concerns regarding the safety and accuracy of contents’  (in US  SAT  tests, Chat technology has recorded approaching full marks). While In Australia, schools and universities have blocked access to the software on internet networks to attempt to prevent students from cutting corners in assessments and exam essays.

In the UK it’s reported that a third of Russell universities, including Oxford and Cambridge have informed students that using the AI bot for assignments will count as academic misconduct, while others are rushing to review their plagiarism policies in time for this year’s assessments. More generally there’s concern about the ‘end of the essay’ – accepted as something fundamental to academic culture by traditionalists and liberals alike.

By way of a contrast the response of the International Baccalaureate could be considered a breath of fresh air?

The IB believes that artificial intelligence (AI) technology will become part of our everyday lives—like spell checkers, translation software and calculators. We, therefore, need to adapt and transform our educational programmes and assessment practices so that students can use these new AI tools ethically and effectively……

Students should be aware that the IB does not regard any work produced—even only in part—by such tools, to be their own. Therefore, as with any quote or material from another source, it must be clear that AI-generated text, image or graph included in a piece of work, has been copied from such software. The software must be credited in the body of the text and appropriately referenced in the bibliography. As with current practice, an essay which is predominantly quotes will not get many, if any, marks with an IB mark scheme. As with any quote or material adapted from another source, it must be credited in the body of the text and appropriately referenced in the bibliography……

Essay writing is, however, being profoundly challenged by the rise of new technology and there’s no doubt that it will have much less prominence in the future…..we need our pupils to master different skills, such as understanding if the essay is any good or if it has missed context, has used biased data or if it is lacking in creativity. These will be far more important skills than writing an essay, so the assessment tasks we set will need to reflect this.”

Espousing clear educational principles, (its programmes have always been innovative) the IB prides in developing a range of student skills. But it should also be considered an entirely rational response – a recognition that education, like other sectors, can no longer ‘race against the machine’? Yet the IB occupies a privileged position as a gold standard certificate for mostly (though not exclusively) ‘expatriate’ international students in expensive schools (around 6000 spread over 150 countries) IB students also tend to get into the world’s best universities. Neither is it subject to narrow ‘high stakes’ national agendas (there are less than a hundred IB schools in the UK). 

Already under orders from government to minimise, if not completely abolish coursework in final assessment (though the soon to be phased out BTECs still allow this) and where teachers spend hours ‘cramming’ students for all or nothing exams, rather than developing learning skills; if none of the main examination boards in England have entered the discussion it’s probably because they don’t need to!

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