Home Artificial Intelligence George Longenecker: AI goes to college 

George Longenecker: AI goes to college 

This commentary is by George Longenecker of Middlesex.

I wanted to find out how easy it would be for a student to use artificial intelligence instead of their own minds. It’s been a few years since I retired and AI has made huge strides.

ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a chatbot developed by OpenAI. Launched in 2022, AI is the fastest-growing software application in history, with 100 million users and a value of $80 billion.  It’s only one of several AI programs

During my career I taught English, geography, history and government at Vermont Tech (now Vermont State University, VTSU).  Knowing the kinds of assignments faculty assign and how they’re graded, I tried giving AI the work. I signed up for ChatGPT and put it to work. 

I gave Chat a topic in U.S. history. Chat churned out “John Adams: A Statesman’s Legacy in American Presidency,” 1,000 words in under 30 seconds.  The essay covered the issues and problems of the second president’s life and legacy better than most of my former students would have. Then I tried a president who doesn’t have a best-selling biography, a movie and a national historic park. I gave Chat the campaign of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who died after a month in office.  Again, Chat was done almost instantly.  I might have been more critical of Harrison for bragging about killing off Native people, but the essay mentioned his slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” and certainly deserved an A-.  Chat was acing U.S. History.

Millions of college students from Alabama to Wyoming take U.S. History and write essays about long-gone presidents.  Maybe some Vermont topics would stymie Chat, or at least make her think a little longer. I asked Chat to write an essay on how Senator Randy Brock (R Franklin) of Vermont defies political characterization.  She did pretty well for 30 seconds of work, though she missed that Brock served as state auditor and supports LGBTQ rights. Still, Chat got at least a B+. Maybe somebody no longer in office would give Chat pause. I asked her to write about former state senator Scudder Parker’s 2006 unsuccessful Democratic campaign for governor of Vermont. My AI friend was just as quick and churned out a chatty essay about the quixotic, precedent-setting campaign. Chat knew Vermont history and politics better than most Vermonters. It was an A essay 

I was about ready to tell my friends still in the classroom to retire and turn it over to Chat, but decided to have one last try — this time in poetry — something we covered in English comp-lit.  An essay on Emily Dickinson’s poetry was excellent, with plenty of apt quotes. For a final challenge I asked Chat to write a free verse poem about flowers and hummingbirds. She was just awful and didn’t follow instructions for the assignment. Maybe poetry is too subjective for AI. 

Erika Nichols-Frazer, writing & humanities coordinator at VTSU Johnson, said: “As a poet and scholar of literature, I usually feel that creative writing written by Chat GPT/AI in general has a very stilted, stiff voice, little emotion or originality, and often awkwardness and downright errors.”

Professor Mary Findley, in the Department of Literature and Writing at VTSU Randolph said: “There is a huge push with AI companies to now produce more ‘human sounding’ essays. … It’s a horrible thing for anyone teaching English. … We are already dealing with the texting generation that has no clue how to put a sentence together with proper capitalization and punctuation.”

Author Kim Ward, who teaches English part-time at Norwich University, said: “I would say the biggest way teachers are working to combat any issues of submitted AI generated work is through scaffolding assignments so that students have to speak to the subjects with personal answers and build their papers through smaller assignments. Chat GPT has trouble answering anything that isn’t extant on the internet already.” 

Faculty I asked agreed this approach, one I used in teaching technical writing, cuts down on the possibility of using Chat to cheat. However, cheating the kinds of assignments used in many classes, like the ones I gave Chat, is remarkably easy to get away with. AI is savvy in its ability to change sentence structure just enough so essays are not identical.  

It takes time to chase down AI-generated cheating. Full-time faculty have a lot of essays to grade and are expected to serve on committees and to publish. Part-time faculty often have other jobs. Faculty want to teach and write, not be plagiarism police. Giving step-by step assignments in writing classes is a partial solution. In history classes, it would be easier just to give tests and not assign essays. 

I spent years teaching students to research, organize ideas, read, write and think about issues. There are huge implications if all a student has to do is log in to an AI chatbot and with a few clicks complete a major portion of their classwork.   



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