AI in the Classroom

There is something to be said for good, interesting, well-written prose. Most of us probably wish that we saw more of that on a daily basis. Good writing is a skill that takes time and practice to master and people have long lamented that this technology or that technology is going to ruin students and their writing capabilities. Remember when texting was going to turn student papers into unintelligible garbage? That didn’t happen. Instead new rules about language and code switching happened. Students internalized when it was ok to write one way and when it was expected to write in another way. Granted, some people do this with more finesse than others, but that can be said about any skill—and good writing is definitely a skill.


[Image Source: https://www.colocationamerica.com/blog/classroom-artificial-intelligence]

As I start this new semester of teaching writing courses, Ross’s famous words from the Friends episode where he is moving into a new apartment ring loudly in my head “Pivot! Pivot!” Not that long ago that we were all pivoting because of Covid-19. And here we are again, but this time, it’s because AI threatens to disrupt our writing classrooms. Where we fall on the use of AI depends on a lot of things, such as discipline and comfort with learning and teaching something wholly new to many of us. For me, I have decided that we can’t run from it. Students will find it and use it, so I’m going to work with it rather than against it. I would rather spend my time teaching students the skills to be better consumers of information and teach them how to use this new technology as yet another tool in their writing and researching arsenal than spend my time policing every document to see if it was written by an AI program.

Going back to handwriting and in-class assignments strikes me as problematic and untenable in the long-run. Many students don’t do a lot of handwriting anymore, so they might struggle with legibility and getting their ideas on paper. Other students have enough anxiety around writing already and this could be another barrier to getting started. And yet other students have honest differences in ability that would make handwriting unavailable to them.

Instead, I am adapting my assignments and my discussions. In my lower-division writing courses, I am asking students to use AI critique along with peer and teacher feedback. I am asking them to reflect on the good and bad of AI versus human critique. In my upper division courses, students might use AI alongside groupwork to do a rhetorical analysis of the AI information versus the group information, or students might use the AI in the drafting stage of a large research project. In all of my courses we will be analyzing and reflecting on how well the AI does what it’s supposed to do and how that compares to what and how humans might do the same tasks. There have been articles written showing that ChatGPT makes up what it doesn’t have access to (see https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2023/01/13/did-chatgpt-just-lie-to-me/?fbclid=IwAR1e75WKiebq6nM_sB-QT9dYxWfTw36G7dWz-NHG3UGtLnBz5xSJ3JcBqe8), and sometimes it gets that made up information very wrong. Other times it says things in biased ways, creating a “truth” that is anything but. There’s also the very real concern that AI written material is already getting hard to detect (see https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00056-7?fbclid=IwAR1wKSDrziZ7c4p4rzL7PHIYA189iwyJ8wAU0pLFvyxXvNKsTuY7jTYbnWY).

Will there be growing pains for instructors and students? Sure. Many of us are new to this landscape of AI writing in the mainstream. But I feel strongly that if we hide from it, or worse, if we police the use of it and try to track down cheaters, we end up on the wrong side of this technology. Instead, let’s teach our students how to be critical of this new technology. Let’s teach them the benefits (fast research, writing new code, telling someone ‘no’ politely) of this new technology while also teaching them the pitfalls and places where they might go astray (biases, false information). Let’s show them how to start with ideas from the AI and build on them. Let’s show them the biases and explain that a technology is only as good as the coding and input that it receives. Let’s help them understand the ethical dilemmas of good research and writing, such as how much they have to contribute to a piece for it to be theirs, and then let’s turn our students loose to see the amazing new pieces of information that they create.

If you would like to engage with discussions of AI in higher ed, feel free to look at this Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/632930835501841

Written by Laura Dumin, Department of English

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