Proctored exams have fallen to generative AI

A Turkish university candidate was recently arrested after being caught using an AI-powered system to obtain answers to the entrance exam in real-time.

Source: Student Caught Using Artificial Intelligence to Cheat on University Entrance Test Students wired up to a computer while taking their exams

A couple of years ago (and a few times since) I observed that proctored exams offer no meaningful defence against generative AI so I am a little surprised it has taken so long for someone to be caught doing this. I guess that others have been more careful.

The candidate used a simple and rather obvious set-up: a camera disguised as a shirt button that was used to read the questions, a router hidden in a hollowed-out shoe linking to a stealthily concealed mobile device that queried a generative AI (likely ChatGPT-powered) that fed the answers back verbally to an in-ear bluetooth earpiece. Constructing such a thing would take a little ingenuity but it’s not rocket science. It’s not even computer science. Anyone could do this. It would take some skill to make it work well, though, and that may be the reason this attempt went wrong. The candidate was caught as a result of their suspicious behaviour, not because anyone directly noticed the tech. I’m trying to imagine the interface, how the machine would know which question to answer (did the candidate have to point their button in the right direction?), how they dealt with dictating the answers at a usable speed (what if they needed it to be repeated? Did they have to tap a microphone a number of times?), how they managed sequence and pacing (sub-vocalization? moving in a particular way?). These are soluble problems but they are not trivial, and skill would be needed to make the whole thing seem natural.

It may take a little while for this to become a widespread commodity item (and a bit longer for exam-takers to learn to use it unobtrusively), but I’m prepared to bet that someone is working on it, if it is not already available. And, yes, exam-setters will come up with a counter-technology to address this particular threat (scanners? signal blockers? Forcing students to strip naked?) but the cheats will be more ingenious, the tech will improve, and so it will go on, in an endless and unwinnable arms race.

Very few people cheat as a matter of course. This candidate was arrested – exam cheating is against the law in Turkey – for attempting to solve the problem they were required to solve, which was to pass the test, not to demonstrate their competence. The level of desperation that led to them adopting such a risky solution to the problem is hard to imagine, but it’s easy to understand how high the stakes must have seemed and how strong the incentive to succeed must have been. The fact that, in most societies, we habitually inflict such tests on both children and adults, on an unimaginably vast scale, will hopefully one day be seen as barbaric, on a par with beating children to make them behave. They are inauthentic, inaccurate, inequitable and, most absurdly of all, a primary cause of the problem they are designed to solve. We really do need to find a better solution.

▶ I got air: interview with Terry Greene

Since 2018, Terry Greene has been producing a wonderful series of podcast interviews with open and online learning researchers and practitioners called Getting Air. Prompted by the publication of How Education Works, (Terry is also responsible for the musical version of the book, so I think he likes it) this week’s episode features an interview with me.

I probably should have been better prepared. Terry asked some probing, well-informed, and sometimes disarming questions, most of which led to me rambling more than I might have done if I’d thought about them in advance. It was fun, though, drifting through a broad range of topics from the nature of technology to music to the perils of generative AI (of course).

I hope that Terry does call his PhD dissertation “Getting rid of instructional designers”.

Presentation – Generative AIs in Learning & Teaching: the Case Against

Here are the slides from my presentation at AU’s Lunch ‘n’ Learn session today. The presentation itself took 20 minutes and was followed by a wonderfully lively and thoughtful conversation for another 40 minutes, though it was only scheduled for half an hour. Thanks to all who attended for a very enjoyable discussion! self portrait of chatGPT, showing an androgynous human face overlaid with circuits

The arguments made in this were mostly derived from my recent paper on the subject (Dron, J. (2023). The Human Nature of Generative AIs and the Technological Nature of Humanity: Implications for Education. Digital, 3(4), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.3390/digital3040020) but, despite the title, my point was not to reject the use of generative AIs at all. The central message I was hoping to get across was a simpler and more important one: to encourage attendees to think about what education is for, and what we would like it to be. As the slides suggest, I believe that is only partially to do with the objectives and outcomes we set out to achieve,  that it is nothing much at all to do with the products of the system such as grades and credentials, and that focus on those mechanical aspects of the system often creates obstacles to the achievement of it. Beyond those easily measured things, education is about the values, beliefs, attitudes, relationships, and development of humans and their societies.  It’s about ways of being, not just capacity to do stuff. It’s about developing humans, not (just) developing skills. My hope is that the disruptions caused by generative AIs are encouraging us to think like the Amish, and to place greater value on the things we cannot measure. These are good conversations to have.

Published in Digital – The Human Nature of Generative AIs and the Technological Nature of Humanity: Implications for Education

A month or two ago I shared a “warts-and-all” preprint of this paper on the risks of educational uses of generative AIs. The revised, open-access published version, The Human Nature of Generative AIs and the Technological Nature of Humanity: Implications for Education is now available in the Journal Digital.

The process has been a little fraught. Two reviewers really liked the paper and suggested minimal but worthwhile changes. One quite liked it but had a few reasonable suggestions for improvements that mostly helped to make the paper better. The fourth, though, was bothersome in many ways, and clearly wanted me to write a completely different paper altogether. Despite this, I did most of what they asked, even though some of the changes, in my opinion, made the paper a bit worse. However, I drew the line at the point that they demanded (without giving any reason) that I should refer to 8 very mediocre, forgettable, cookie cutter computer science papers which, on closer inspection, had all clearly been written by the reviewer or their team. The big problem I had with this was not so much the poor quality of the papers, nor even the blatant nepotism/self-promotion of the demand, but the fact that none were in any conceivable way relevant to mine, apart from being about AI: they were about algorithm-tweaking, mostly in the context of traffic movements in cities.  It was as ridiculous as a reviewer of a work on Elizabethan literature requiring the author to refer to papers on slightly more efficient manufacturing processes for staples. Though it is normal and acceptable for reviewers to suggest reference to their own papers when it would clearly lead to improvements, this was an utterly shameless abuse of power of a scale and kind that I have never seen before. I politely refused, making it clear that I was on to their game but not directly calling them out on it.

In retrospect, I slightly regret not calling them out. For a grizzly old researcher like me who could probably find another publisher without too much hassle, it doesn’t matter much if I upset a reviewer enough to make them reject my paper. However, for early-career researchers stuck in the publish-or-perish cycle, it would be very much harder to say no. This kind of behaviour is harmful for the author, the publisher, the reader, and the collective intelligence of the human race. The fact that the reviewer was so desperate to get a few more citations for their own team with so little regard for quality or relevance seems to me to be a poor reflection on them and their institution but, more so, a damning indictment of a broken system of academic publishing, and of the reward systems driving academic promotion and recognition. I do blame the reviewer, but I understand the pressures they might have been under to do such a blatantly immoral thing.

As it happens, my paper has more than a thing or two to say about this kind of McNamara phenomenon, whereby the means used to measure success in a system become and warp its purpose, because it is among the main reasons that generative AIs pose such a threat. It is easy to forget that the ways we establish goals and measure success in educational systems are no more than signals of a much more complex phenomenon with far more expansive goals that are concerned with helping humans to be, individually and in their cultures and societies, as much as with helping them to do particular things. Generative AIs are great at both generating and displaying those signals – better than most humans in many cases – but that’s all they do: the signals signify nothing. For well-defined tasks with well-defined goals they provide a lot of opportunities for cost-saving, quality improvement, and efficiency and, in many occupations, that can be really useful. If you want to quickly generate some high quality advertising copy, the intent of which is to sell a product, then it makes good sense to use a generative AI. Not so much in education, though, where it is too easy to forget that learning objectives, learning outcomes, grades, credentials, and so on are not the purposes of learning but just means for and signals of achieving them.

Though there are other big reasons to be very concerned about using generative AIs in education, some of which I explore in the paper, this particular problem is not so much with the AIs themselves as with the technological systems into which they are, piecemeal, inserted. It’s a problem with thinking locally, not globally; of focusing on one part of the technology assembly without acknowledging its role in the whole. Generative AIs could, right now and with little assistance,  perform almost every measurable task in an educational system from (for students) producing essays and exam answers, to (for teachers) writing activities and assignments, or acting as personal tutors. They could do so better than most people. If that is all that matters to us then we might as well therefore remove the teachers and the students from the system because, quite frankly, they only get in the way. This absurd outcome is more or less exactly the end game that will occur though, if we don’t rethink (or double down on existing rethinking of) how education should work and what it is for, beyond the signals that we usually use to evaluate success or intent. Just thinking of ways to use generative AIs to improve our teaching is well-meaning, but it risks destroying the woods by focusing on the trees. We really need to step back a bit and think of why we bother in the first place.

For more on this, and for my tentative partial solutions to these and other related problems, do read the paper!

Abstract and citation

This paper analyzes the ways that the widespread use of generative AIs (GAIs) in education and, more broadly, in contributing to and reflecting the collective intelligence of our species, can and will change us. Methodologically, the paper applies a theoretical model and grounded argument to present a case that GAIs are different in kind from all previous technologies. The model extends Brian Arthur’s insights into the nature of technologies as the orchestration of phenomena to our use by explaining the nature of humans’ participation in their enactment, whether as part of the orchestration (hard technique, where our roles must be performed correctly) or as orchestrators of phenomena (soft technique, performed creatively or idiosyncratically). Education may be seen as a technological process for developing these soft and hard techniques in humans to participate in the technologies, and thus the collective intelligence, of our cultures. Unlike all earlier technologies, by embodying that collective intelligence themselves, GAIs can closely emulate and implement not only the hard technique but also the soft that, until now, was humanity’s sole domain; the very things that technologies enabled us to do can now be done by the technologies themselves. Because they replace things that learners have to do in order to learn and that teachers must do in order to teach, the consequences for what, how, and even whether learning occurs are profound. The paper explores some of these consequences and concludes with theoretically informed approaches that may help us to avert some dangers while benefiting from the strengths of generative AIs. Its distinctive contributions include a novel means of understanding the distinctive differences between GAIs and all other technologies, a characterization of the nature of generative AIs as collectives (forms of collective intelligence), reasons to avoid the use of GAIs to replace teachers, and a theoretically grounded framework to guide adoption of generative AIs in education.

Dron, J. (2023). The Human Nature of Generative AIs and the Technological Nature of Humanity: Implications for Education. Digital, 3(4), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.3390/digital3040020

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/21104429/published-in-digital-the-human-nature-of-generative-ais-and-the-technological-nature-of-humanity-implications-for-education