The College Essay Is Dead

From The Atlantic:

Suppose you are a professor of pedagogy, and you assign an essay on learning styles. A student hands in an essay with the following opening paragraph:

The construct of “learning styles” is problematic because it fails to account for the processes through which learning styles are shaped. Some students might develop a particular learning style because they have had particular experiences. Others might develop a particular learning style by trying to accommodate to a learning environment that was not well suited to their learning needs. Ultimately, we need to understand the interactions among learning styles and environmental and personal factors, and how these shape how we learn and the kinds of learning we experience.

Pass or fail? A- or B+? And how would your grade change if you knew a human student hadn’t written it at all? Because Mike Sharples, a professor in the U.K., used GPT-3, a large language model from OpenAI that automatically generates text from a prompt, to write it. (The whole essay, which Sharples considered graduate-level, is available, complete with references, here.) Personally, I lean toward a B+. The passage reads like filler, but so do most student essays.

Sharples’s intent was to urge educators to “rethink teaching and assessment” in light of the technology, which he said “could become a gift for student cheats, or a powerful teaching assistant, or a tool for creativity.” Essay generation is neither theoretical nor futuristic at this point. In May, a student in New Zealand confessed to using AI to write their papers, justifying it as a tool like Grammarly or spell-check: ​​“I have the knowledge, I have the lived experience, I’m a good student, I go to all the tutorials and I go to all the lectures and I read everything we have to read but I kind of felt I was being penalised because I don’t write eloquently and I didn’t feel that was right,” they told a student paper in Christchurch. They don’t feel like they’re cheating, because the student guidelines at their university state only that you’re not allowed to get somebody else to do your work for you. GPT-3 isn’t “somebody else”—it’s a program.

The world of generative AI is progressing furiously. Last week, OpenAI released an advanced chatbot named ChatGPT that has spawned a new wave of marveling and hand-wringing, plus an upgrade to GPT-3 that allows for complex rhyming poetry; Google previewed new applications last month that will allow people to describe concepts in text and see them rendered as images; and the creative-AI firm Jasper received a $1.5 billion valuation in October. It still takes a little initiative for a kid to find a text generator, but not for long.

The essay, in particular the undergraduate essay, has been the center of humanistic pedagogy for generations. It is the way we teach children how to research, think, and write. That entire tradition is about to be disrupted from the ground up. Kevin Bryan, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, tweeted in astonishment about OpenAI’s new chatbot last week: “You can no longer give take-home exams/homework … Even on specific questions that involve combining knowledge across domains, the OpenAI chat is frankly better than the average MBA at this point. It is frankly amazing.” Neither the engineers building the linguistic tech nor the educators who will encounter the resulting language are prepared for the fallout.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

3 thoughts on “The College Essay Is Dead”

    • Yup. AI has managed to replicate the writing of a mediocre-at-best undergrad padding his page count. yipee.

  1. “Neither the engineers building the linguistic tech nor the educators who will encounter the resulting language are prepared for the fallout.”

    This is nothing new.
    All changes come with unexpected consequences, whether it be Henry Ford’s assembly lines changing sexual mores, to IdiotPolitician™ vote buying leading to historical inflation, often of greater impact than the trigger.

    That is what the Law of Unintended Consequences is all about.

    In that particular bit of hand wringing, teachers being forced to change their approach might be a good thing. Teaching is supposed to be about guided/supervised learning, not fire-and-forget assignments. I experienced both and actually learned new things from the former. The latter? I was already familiar enough with the subject to survive.

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