Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Dear Teachers: AI is probably writing papers for your class

Have you really looked at your Microsoft Word tools lately? Because, yikes. We'll get to that in a moment.

We've been following the question for an algorithm that can write essays or add copy or other fun stuff. There have been advances, but also problems (like AI that "decided" to write Really Naughty Things). And the gibberish. Or the uncanny valley. Or the bloviating nothingness. 

But the search goes on because if writing were one more job that could be handled by computers instead of those annoying and wanna-be-paid-a-living-wage carbon-based life forms, well that would make some entrepreneurs very happy. And the flip side--an algorithm that could read and grade student papers would close that final gap in the search for a fully automated teacher-free classroom. 

But as Aki Peritz, writing for Slate, reminds us, there's another group of folks who welcome cyber-writing, and that's students themselves. 

Got an assignment? Feed an opening sentence into an algorithmic text generator like Sudowriter, and you'll get back a mediocre, somewhat hollow essay to hand in. In fact, Peritz argues, some of the awkwardness of the program actually echoes the awkwardness of as student writer. And it is, of course, untraceable by conventional plagiarism checking methods, because it's not actually plagiarized. It's just having a bot do your work for you. Bringing us just one step closer to a future in which an algorithm generates a page of text that is then graded by another algorithm, while students and teachers just sit awkwardly in a classroom doing nothing.

There are teacher solutions for this kind of cheating. Have the students write the essay in class. Better yet, listen to the old dictum that if an assignment is easy to cheat on, that's the assignment's fault and you need to redesign it. 

But there's an arguably more annoying AI out there, and one that's far more likely to be in use by your students.

I haven't paid any attention to my Microsoft Word menus in ages except when I need to find a way to do something I didn't already know how to do. But David Lee Finkle, creator of the teacher comic strip Mr. Fitz, tipped me off to this feature in one of his recent strips.

Microsoft Word's editor will now grade your work. Okay, it calls it "editor score," but it's given as a percentage in a style every student will recognize as a score. Up in the upper right corner of the screen, you see [editor], and it will spit out a score along with some advice.

The "advice" is a compendium of the same old mediocre algorithmic editing suggestions that Word has always offered. I ran some of my newspaper columns through the editor and got advice like "replace 'expertise' with 'ability' so that it's easier to understand" (except, of course, that's a fairly significant change in meaning. Chakaris (as in George) is flagged as a misspelled word--maybe I meant "Chakari's"? The phrase "it's telling that we describe..." throws it and it suggests "it's saying..." instead, which is just wrong. The program has lots of thoughts about commas. And it hates my tendency to coin my own words. 

The editor also checks for clarity, conciseness, and formality, and will let you set it for formal, professional, or casual. And there's a special setting for resumes. 

I ran this post (so far) through it, and got some suggestions for clarity and conciseness, including old standards such as getting rid of a passive voice and contractions. But as a piece of casual writing, I scored a 98%. 

I am imagining students running their essays through this and following all the advice so that their work is scrubbed clean of personal voice and yet with some additional weakness and inexactitude of language. As Mr. Fitz's student says, "You think I should stop writing to please the computer and write like a human being with flaws and all. To retain my humanity against our computer overlords."

But mostly I am imagining students saying, "What do you mean I got an 87 on this essay??!! My computer says it's a 93!" 

Okay. So language processing algorithms are here, and so widely distributed that they are unavoidably part of the education landscape. But they're tools (and not great ones), not crutches. Students have to learn that the algorithms can't actually "read" or "write" as we understand the terms, that the algorithms have some serious limitations, and that these uncivilized beasts must still be kept on a leash that's firmly in the hand of the writer. Or, you could just turn the algorithms loose into the wild, or lock them in a cage, and carry on without them. 


  1. AI is writing English papers.
    Photomath is solving any math problem (just upload a pic!).
    Chegg is answering all chapter review questions.
    Wikipedia is giving it all away.

    Teaching in the year 2022 is liking trying to sell a used car to a kid who owns a Rolls, a Bentley, a Jag, a Porche, and a Model S.

    1. Which is why giving authentic work in order to measure knowledge and skill is going to be the best route.