Chat GPT and AI: The Future (or Downfall?) of Writing

What does artificial intelligence mean for the future of writing education?

a group of high school students writing on laptops

Writing has always been an integral part of human communication and self-expression. From the earliest forms of written language to the modern day word processor, writing tools and technology have evolved significantly to make the process of writing more efficient and accurate. In the early days of computing, spell checkers and predictive text were introduced to help writers catch spelling errors and suggest words as they typed.

Auto correct functionality was later added to automatically fix common spelling mistakes as they were made. More recently, tools like Grammarly have emerged as a way for writers to improve the overall clarity and correctness of their writing. These tools use artificial intelligence and natural language processing to analyze writing for grammar and style errors, and provide suggestions for improvement.

Now, a new writing assistance tool called Chat Generating Pre-Training (ChatGPT) is taking this technology to the next level. In fact, ChatGPT is more than a writing assistance tool, it is a writer, and subsequently a thinker.

What is ChatGPT?

ChatGPT is a free chatbot powered by artificial intelligence that anyone can access online. It is capable of understanding and generating human-like text – from brief book summaries to entire multi page essays – making it a powerful tool with abundant applications.

Unlike traditional writing assistance tools that focus on grammar and style, ChatGPT is able to analyze the content and structure of writing to provide more comprehensive feedback. It can even suggest alternative ways to express an idea or provide additional context to make the writing more clear and effective.

ChatGPT is forcing society to not only change the way it thinks about writing, but how writing is taught and learned. While students might be eager to ask ChatGPT to generate a 1500 word essay on two contrasting themes present in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences (ChatGPT chose confinement and freedom), teachers are left scrambling to consider how to navigate the unprecedented technology in the classroom.

Having recently left the high school English classroom, I don’t envy my former colleagues’ need to venture into the digital unknown. But before examining the ethical concerns regarding ChatGPT in education, it is critical to understand the indelible impact writing has on the human brain.

Why Writing Matters

Even if your student isn’t the next Stephen King or Maya Angelou, the skill of writing offers tremendous personal benefits that extend far beyond landing on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that strong writing skills lead to strong communication skills. But it is the payoff of those robust communication skills – closer personal relationships, more success in the workplace, enhanced leadership abilities, and even increased self-confidence – that reinforce writing’s importance.

Furthermore, the better one becomes at writing, the better they become at both critical thinking and creative problem solving. Writing also improves our recall, since putting pen to paper helps transition information from short term to long term memory.

Asking ChatGPT to draft a short-answer question about causes of the Civil War, or to write a creative story that explores the theme of loss, robs students of the opportunity to expand their minds—literally.

Speaking of the brain, throughout life but especially when young, brains are in a constant state of pruning. Babies are born with a seemingly infinite number of neural pathways that in order to avoid being pruned off must be activated. For example, the brain of a child that grows up in a monolingual home will likely prune the pathways that would have been useful in developing bilingual fluency. This allows the brain to direct more resources to solidify active neural pathways and explains the difficulty most people face when trying to learn languages later in life.

Therefore, it’s essential that writing is practiced repeatedly throughout childhood and adolescence to keep the brain from pruning the pathways that lead to the aforementioned benefits. Asking ChatGPT to draft a short-answer question about causes of the Civil War, or to write a creative story that explores the theme of loss, robs students of the opportunity to expand their minds, literally.

Academic (Dis)honesty – are there academically honest ways to use ChatGPT?

Most would agree that having ChatGPT complete one’s homework falls into the category of academic dishonesty – the same way that paying an internet stranger to write a personal statement, or submitting your older brother’s Great Gatsby essay to a different teacher would. But are there academically honest ways to use ChatGPT? Could a burgeoning writer improve their process without stunting brain development? Preliminarily, I’d argue yes.

SparkNotes existed whether I wanted it to or not. Even if my school blocked the website, access was only a smartphone away. Therefore, I found it best to encourage students to use SparkNotes to expand upon their thinking, not replace it.

The internet is full of resources that students already turn to when writing is assigned, the most common being SparkNotes for literary summary and analysis. And while I wouldn’t endorse merely rewriting contents from SparkNotes in one’s own words, I would often direct students (to their surprise) to SparkNotes if they were struggling to comprehend a more challenging text: “Take notes as you read and sort out any confusion with SparkNotes afterwards.” SparkNotes existed whether I wanted it to or not.

Even if my school blocked the website, access was only a smartphone away (which were in my students’ hands more often than their school issued iPads). Therefore, I found it best to encourage students to use SparkNotes to expand upon their thinking, not replace it.

Teaching Students to Use ChatGPT Responsibly

So, how can we coach our students to use ChatGPT in a way that enhances their academic experience rather than eliminate it? Take this article for example. I knew that writing offered tremendous benefits, but rather than Googling, “What are the benefits of writing?”, browsing several results, and recording repeated answers, I simply asked ChatGPT, which outlined nine unique benefits that I summarized for you a few paragraphs earlier.

I still did my own writing, but I used ChatGPT to help me with the research. When it came to information about the brain, I had to ask a few followup questions about pruning and neuroplasticity. But again, ChatGPT delivered with an easy to understand answer that I relayed in my own words and supplemented with my own examples.

However, my concern is that most students will not use ChatGPT thoughtfully. Given my experience in the classroom, I suspect the majority of students will ask ChatGPT to write a paragraph, essay, etc. and then swap out a few words or sentences with their own in order to throw a teacher or anti-plagiarism software off their scent; others will simply turn in whatever ChatGPT spits out verbatim.

How might this look? Take a glance back at the first two paragraphs of this article. I knew I wanted to open with a timeline about writing technology, but rather than go through the trouble of crafting it myself, I asked ChatGPT to take care of it for me:

Write an introduction of roughly 300 words for an article about ChatGPT and how it is changing writing as we know it. Include a brief timeline of technology based writing support tools such as spell check, predictive text, auto correct, and Grammarly before introducing ChatGPT

I left the first paragraph untouched – it was 100% machine written in under 10 seconds. The second paragraph sounded a bit too technical in nature, so I made some adjustments to the word choice and deleted a sentence or two.

Until I admitted my own academic dishonesty, were you able to tell? ChatGPT does pretty well with academic writing, but even still, it has its limitations.

Limitations & Accommodations

While ChatGPT is able to write in different styles (try Shakespearean for fun) there’s a lack of voice (personality) to the writing. It feels a bit canned, almost sterile. As this article progressed, ChatGPT’s writing gave way to my own, which you might have noticed has a more conversational tone.

Additionally, the software isn’t completely infallible, it is still known to produce occasional factual errors. ChatGPT struggles with citations, too. Therefore, students might run into a wall when it comes to in-text citations and drafting a bibliography for research assignments.

And perhaps most concerning to students, the platform likely won’t be free forever; developers will want to monetize the technology following the current public testing period. But until that day comes, and perhaps even after, educators will need to change their playbook.

How Teachers Are Adapting to ChatGPT

While working on this article I reached out to my old department chair for her thoughts. She informed me that the district had blocked ChatGPT from the students’ network and devices, but that they might need to go back to the “old fashioned in-class essay on pen and paper” in order to evaluate students accurately.

Additionally, teachers are considering how to modify assignments to make them less ChatGPT friendly. Instead of writing an essay about the transformation of Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, students could create two pieces of art that represent his growth from the beginning to the end of the novel.

To ensure writing isn’t completely abandoned in the English classroom, students would then explain their artistic choices in a subsequent writing piece – a task unfit for ChatGPT. Such adjustments might even make English more accessible and enjoyable for students in a way the standard five-paragraph essay never could.

Final Thoughts

ChatGPT is just one of many ways that artificial intelligence will revolutionize our world in the not so distant future. By 2065, 65% of today’s students will work in fields that don’t even exist yet. Therefore, we cannot turn a blind eye to artificially intelligent technological advancements that could soon become a centerpiece of our economy.

Thoughtfully adapting ChatGPT into the writing process and classroom as a tool, rather than a crutch, could allow us to preserve the known benefits of writing, while also empowering students to explore these exciting technologies to solve greater challenges of the modern world.

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