If AI can write news items, they can write essays too

There is a crisis coming in academia. It’s been looming on the horizon for quite some time, and now threatens to bring the profession into disrepute.

That problem is AI.

For many years now, AI have been used to power chat bots and digital assistants such as Cortana, Siri and Alexa. Over the years, these bots have become far more nuanced and complex. While these systems aren’t intelligent in the same way as a human being, they do a fairly good job at mimicking human behaviour, and convincing us that they are ‘real’.

Indeed, these technologies are now so convincing that it won’t be long before they are put to nefarious use. It’s already been shown that AI can write convincing news articles, and it won’t be long before they are used to write academic essays, even more complex works such as research papers and even full-length publications.

Make no mistake, this is a serious issue, and one that needs to be taken seriously. In the next few years, AI-powered essay mills have the potential to shake academia right to the very core.

B+W writing at computer. Photo by Rayi Christian Wicaksono on Unsplash

The plagiarism problem

Malpractice is a massive problem in academia, and one that’s only going to get worse with the use of essay-writing AI.

If you’ve been a student, or worked in higher education in recent years, you may be familiar with the plagiarism detection software, Turnitin. This software scans essay submissions and provides a ‘similarity’ score that shows roughly how much of the essay has either been submitted before, or occurs somewhere on the web.

Of course, what Turnitin doesn’t spot, is cases where students have searched (and often written) content in their own native language, and then translated it into English – often with the use of computer software to translate their words, and even re-write passages they’ve taken from websites published in their own language.

As academics, we do our best to work around this by applying professional judgement to each essay, but there’s only so much we can do. Already, there are many software packages out there that can be used to improve written English, and even ‘check’ work for plagiarism before you submit. These programs have been around for some time, and are a major hindrance in the fight against academic malpractice. Of course, spelling and grammar checks are all well and good, however, there is a distinct line to be drawn when these tools start enabling students to deliberately ‘cheat the system’ and plagiarise someone else’s work.

This problem will only get worse with the use of essay-writing AI. It is no great stretch to imagine a time where AI can produce original works that bypass the checks offered by Turnitin. More advanced AI may even be able to match a student’s writing style, and even include the key markers we look for in an essay, such as personal reflection and items relevant to the course.

Aerial view of a university. Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash

Money talks

As is so often the case with these things, money talks – and in higher education, it’s a problem that works both ways. While there will always be some students who seek to cheat the system, the issue is made all the worse by the proliferation of wealthy students who are recruited for the money they bring with them, and often with low standards of English.

In recent weeks, the Education Secretary has called on companies such as PayPal to block payments to essay mills, in order to try curb the massive growth in the essay-writing industry. However, the problem is far more complex than the news item suggests.

In this case, the technology is far outstripping our ability to keep up, and even if PayPal stops payments to essay mills, the cheaters will find a work around. There’s also then the question of the essay writing tools that facilitate cheating, whether deliberately or not, and what we are to do about them.

Of course, there remains one big elephant in the room, and that is the universities themselves. The marketisation of higher education has led to a veritable gold rush for the international market, and the higher fees international students bring. As such, universities often lower their entry requirements, or set up foundation years to bring in those whose English isn’t quite up to scratch.

The universities then do everything in their power to keep these students in the system and paying fees – no matter how many times they get caught cheating, and how many times they are called up for academic malpractice.

Clearly the system is broken, and AI will only make cheating more prevalent, as the technology to do so becomes cheaper and more widely available. It won’t just be the very rich students who can afford essay mills any longer, but even the middle-to-less-wealthy students who may be tempted into cheating if the risk-reward choice works in their favour.

And of course this isn’t even to mention what might happen when AI start to generate academic papers. The implications really are quite disturbing…

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