When he was in fourth grade, my older son came home fuming one day. The cause of his upset was what we later called The Needle Incident. During a sewing activity in his classroom, a container of needles had spilled on the floor. My son (who was apparently nearby) was “accused” by his teacher of having spilled them. Having to pick up the needles was a mere irritation; the gall was in the misplaced accusation. For the teacher, it was likely a trivial, momentary blip in the afternoon’s activities. My son, on the other hand, held onto it. For a long time.
I thought of The Needle Incident the other day when reading a column in the Washington Post about how schools are struggling with the new challenge of identifying AI-generated writing. Ordinary plagiarism checkers cannot distinguish AI-text from original writing, and so, of course, the race is on to create software that is up to the task. One such piece of software –Turnitin – is now able to detect and flag AI-generated language. Sometimes.
In the test of the software described in the article, more than half the writing samples were misjudged to some degree. Sometimes, original text was mis-identified as AI-generated, other times, the reverse. If educators depend on software, mistakes are bound to happen – mistakes that have the potential to result in accusations (and repercussions) far more serious than spilled sewing needles.
Student-teacher relationships have been shown to have a powerful impact on student learning and achievement; false accusations - or any other perceived unfairness - will derail them. Worse, when cheating can’t be proven, but is only suggested as a possibility, teacher bias can come into play. Who is believed when they deny cheating, and who is not?
A few thoughts have come to mind as I continue to ponder the chatbot dilemma:
We need to help students understand the ethical and unethical uses of AI tools. Just as we take the time to talk about the many forms and nuances of plagiarism, we need to address the nuances of AI. Can it be used to jumpstart our writing? To help with an outline? To check our grammar? When a powerful new tool is available, we can’t just say it’s bad. Like the slogan “Just say no,” it won’t be effective.
We need to help students see the value of the assignment. Students need to understand what they are being asked to do – and why. When students believe there is value in learning something or getting better at it, they are more likely to expend time and energy on it. If an assignment seems rote or like busy-work – and an AI chatbot can handle it – all bets are off.
We need to help students see themselves as unique and creative. Their thoughts, feelings, and insights are not replicable by a chatbot. As noted by Turnitin’s Eric Wang, one of the reasons AI-generated text can be identified is because it is “extremely, consistently average.” No one enjoys writing that is “extremely, consistently average.” Not the writer and not the reader. If we can help students find their passions and their voices, a chatbot won’t be up to the task
Finally, when things are tricky, we can always lean into relationships. One student mentioned in the article had written an essay entirely on her own, but it was flagged as partially AI-generated. As she explained, “there is no way to prove you didn’t cheat unless your teacher knows your writing style or trusts you as a student.” That trust is developed from the first day of class and in all the relationship moves that we make.
It’s important to remember that we will make mistakes in our relationships with students. We won’t always avoid creating a Needle Incident (years later, mention of it finally generates a chuckle), but taking steps to repair the inevitable ruptures can make relationships stronger than they were before.
The ability to form deep, authentic relationships is potentially the primary advantage we have over AI. We won’t be able to entirely stop mis-uses of AI, but we can have meaningful conversations with students about AI and meaningful follow-up when something goes wrong. Let’s do everything we can to prioritize our connections and take full advantage of our one very important advantage.
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