So, this is a thing…

Students are now using AIs to write essays and assignments for credit, and they are (probably) getting away with it. This particular instance may be fake, but the tools are widely available and it would be bizarre were no one to be using them for this purpose. There are already far too many sites providing stuff like product reviews and news stories (re)written by AIs, and AIs are already being used for academic paper writing. In fact, systems for doing so, like CopyMatic or ArticleGenerator, are now a commodity item. So the next step will be that we will develop AIs to identify the work of other AIs (in fact, that is already a thing, e.g. here and here), and so it will go on, and on, and on.

This kind of thing will usually evade plagiarism checkers with ease, and may frequently fool human markers. For those of us working in educational institutions, I predict that traditionalists will demand that we double down on proctored exams, in a vain attempt to defend a system that is already broken beyond repair. There are better ways to deal with this: getting to know students, making each learning journey (and outputs) unique and personal, offering support for motivated students rather than trying to ‘motivate’ them, and so on. But that is not enough.

I am rather dreading the time when an artificial student takes one of my courses. The systems are probably too slow, quirky, and expensive right now for real-time deep fakes driven by plausible GANs to fool me, at least for synchronous learning, but I think it could already convincingly be done for asynchronous learning, with relatively little supervision.  I think my solution might be to respond with an artificial teacher, into which there has been copious research for some decades, and of which there are many existing examples.

To a significant extent, we already have artificial students, and artificial teachers teaching them. How ridiculous is that? How broken is the system that not only allows it but actively promotes it?

These tools are out there, getting better by the day, and it makes sense for all of us to be using them. As they become more and more ubiquitous, just as we accommodated pocket calculators in the teaching of math, so we will need to accommodate these tools in all aspects of our education. If an AI can produce a plausible new painting in any artist’s style (or essay, or book, or piece of music, or video) then what do humans need to learn, apart from how to get the most out of the machines? If an AI can write a better essay than me, why should I bother? If a machine can teach as well as me, why teach?

This is a wake-up call. Soon, if not already, most of the training data for the AIs will be generated by AIs. Unchecked, the result is going to be a set of ever-worse copies of copies, that become what the next generation consumes and learns from, in a vicious spiral that leaves us at best stagnant, at worst something akin to the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine.  If we don’t want this to happen then it is time for educators to reclaim, to celebrate, and (perhaps a little) to reinvent our humanity. We need, more and more, to think of education as a process of learning to be, not of learning to do, except insofar as the doing contributes to our being. It’s about people, learning to be people, in the presence of and through interaction with other people. It’s about creativity, compassion, and meaning, not the achievement of outcomes a machine could replicate with ease. I think it should always have been this way.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/15164121/so-this-is-a-thing

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and two growing-up grandchildren. I live in beautiful Vancouver.

4 Comments on So, this is a thing…

  1. macurcher says:

    Jon. This is so interesting as I have been thinking along exactly these lines since I played around in the Open AI sandbox and looked at the work Mike Sharples is doing. I even wrote an email to a colleague of this where I used the calculator as an example and also wrote of “pseudo teaching and learning in a Potemkin University”. Everyone pretending that something valuable is happening while our bots and AI do the work.

    I love and agree so much with your final section, “A wake up call”… Yet this is not even being discussed in many contexts.
    Thanks Jon, as ever you put this all much better than I could but it captures the essence of my own feelings.
    Take care and hope you are well.
    Mark

    1. Jon Dron says:

      Thank you, Mark – indeed, we live in interesting times. I think it highlights how much it is already broken, more than anything, but so much is intertwingled it is hard to see a simple way out of the mess we got ourselves in.

    1. Jon Dron says:

      Really interesting! I’d love to chat – maybe we could invite you to give a session at Athabasca U at some point, Sarah? We have an assessment community of practice that would be very interested in your work, I think

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