AI-Assisted Writing: Concerns, Benefits, and Ethics
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, crept swiftly into classrooms in spring 2023, although concerns with AI started much earlier in other contexts. For example, the artistic community began pushing back on auto-generated creations much sooner ( see this article from The New York Times). Now that this technology has found its way readily into the hands of young people, what does this mean for writing instruction?
This blog post explores the concerns, benefits (if any), and ethics of AI in the classroom, with some practical steps teachers can take to seize this opportunity to engage their students even more.
The Value of Voice
First and foremost, there is a possibility with AI for a move against mechanical writing. For decades, teachers have contended formulaic and numerical-driven approaches to composition fail to capture the essence of what writing is. While lock-step routines for building blocks of writing might be helpful, there is an artistry and purpose to composing that make this a process of beauty. Now that AI-driven responses are a tap or whisper away, perhaps the presence of this technology is an invitation to (re)consider what counts in writing.
In the early 2010s, the Common Core movement centered around a form critical approach to reading and responding. Students were told to take in the way the author crafted, to focus on what was present on the page, and to leave personal opinions and experiences to the side. This way of reading and responding represents a singular approach to instruction that so often leads to debates with little attention to the benefits that occur on both sides—valuing both the reader and the text. Perhaps the presence of AI might lead to an invitation to conceive of sharing student voices in new ways and at deeper levels, and with authentic purposes.
Voice is a quality that is sought after in writing, and quality in writing elevates responses above the stack of work teachers read. It might be the case that the rise of AI can result in more conversations in classrooms about what strong writing looks like, including the experiences of the author in concert with the mentor text voice who is sharing with the student on the page. Aligning with the pushback that the artistic community shares, the human voice and touch will never be replaced completely by a mechanical infrastructure.
Analysis and Affordances
Phrases like “the rise of AI” might conjure images of Isaac Asimov-inspired worlds and inspire fear of technology, but there is the potential to move from possible problems this technology brings to some very exciting affordances. The first of these is the incredible advances that have been made and are still being made for students with complex communication needs, from those who are nonverbal to those who have difficulty manipulating writing tools. The possibilities that AI-supported tools bring for students who might find reading and writing to be difficult is worth the trouble of mitigating plagiarism.
Additionally, now that students have a ready-made instant-essay builder or short answer response wizard as part of these tools, perhaps it is time to revisit once more what it means to be a composer and critical thinker. From Cliff’s Notes to SparkNotes to the essay-heavy websites that sit behind paywalls, there has been a longstanding trend of ways to skirt the demands of writing instruction for students who wish to explore them.
What about a backward-engineering approach to AI-generated texts that asks students to trace, delineate, or critique the elements of the question that allowed the tools to map a response? What about the possibilities for critique and even creative/artistic response to extend what AI generates? These are potential directions—but, also what about talking with students about their thinking, in the moment and on the spot, as a way of building learning and relationship? Many of these steps are natural moves teachers are taking already, including opportunities for rich classroom discussion.
Expanding on this idea of taking learning a step further, the ethics of AI are a central question to consider. When an educator reads a brilliant piece from a student only to discover it has been copied from some other source, there can be a disheartened sense of frustration. Educators want their students to excel, explore, and find their voices. Teachers can lead discussions about what authentic responses make possible for readers. For example, if writing a summary, students could practice their own skills and then compare their work to AI-generated responses. They might find their words carry more insight than the automatic work of the machine, and teachers can work with students to celebrate the progress they make that expands upon what AI can manage.
Rather than treating plagiarism as the dreaded word and deadly sin of composing, teachers can broaden the conversation to talk about academic integrity, authenticity in authorship, and why writers engage in the act of giving credit to sources in the first place. If nothing else, AI makes the conversation about credibility more relevant.
Teachers can lead discussions of this nature with questions like:
- What does the human writer offer that AI cannot grasp?
- How do we extend our writing and communicating abilities to share meaning and experiences?
- What do the authors we read authentically say to us as human beings about what we encounter in life?
Perhaps, all concerns considered, AI might be an intriguing tool, rather than a source of trouble for instruction—and this may be an opportunity to revisit assumptions about measuring quality in composition.