I wish a bot were smart enough to write this column


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I really wanted a bot to write this. But when I asked ChatGPT to write me a higher education newsletter for The Hechinger Report, the one that it produced really wasn’t very good. 

I wish a bot were smart enough to write this column

On the other hand, the breakup message I asked it to write is something I’ll probably keep in my back pocket. And the essay on Russian Blue cats (like my Franny) is full of fun facts that I will definitely share the next time I’m at an awkward dinner party and at a loss for conversation topics.

Because it’s been a few years since I submitted anything for a grade, I tried to think of prompts for ChatGPT that were less related to getting an A and more related to getting by as a 20-something in the year 2023. They’re things I’d typically figure out on my own. Open the Google doc, slog through writing my story. Call my mom, call my best friend, call my therapist, ask for advice. Excuse myself to the restroom to ask Siri for conversation starter ideas. But with ChatGPT, the work is done for me.

For college students, you can see the appeal. And cheating isn’t new. It may be as old as academia itself. 

In class, students can peek over at their neighbor’s quiz to copy down answers. They can pull long sleeves over forearms inked with formulas and facts before a test. For take-home assignments, they can copy straight from internet encyclopedias or textbooks or have a friend fill in the answers. They can resubmit their own work for multiple assignments without approval, known as self-plagiarism. And for years now, in various forms, students have paid other people to do their assignments for them.

Because these are not new problems, professors and other experts have already developed ways to counter different forms of cheating. The debut of ChatGPT has prompted frantic attempts to eliminate this variation and, perhaps, even find ways to use this new technology for good.

“We’re entering a new chapter,” said Annie Chechitelli, chief product officer at Turnitin, a plagiarism detection service used by many colleges and universities. 

Related: Researchers say AI will ‘greatly impact’ the future of education

Turnitin’s model compares submitted writing to other writing available on the internet, including archived student papers, academic journals and other sources. ChatGPT and generative AI pose a new challenge, because there is nothing to compare the submitted samples to, she said. 

Turnitin is working on new software that will be able to detect whether something was written by a bot or a human. The software will be able to tell because bots write differently than humans do. Instead of writing based on context, as you or I would, a bot writes word by word, predicting what should come next based on what has already been written. A bot would pick the most statistically average word, whereas a human might pick a word with more flair, she said. 

The new software is likely to be available within the next six months, Chechitelli said. 

“We’re entering a new chapter.”

Annie Chechitelli, chief product officer at Turnitin, a plagiarism detection service used by many colleges and universities. 

The New York Times reported that some professors are using this as an opportunity to rethink what and how they are teaching, adjusting for what is likely to be the new normal.

Besart Kunushevci was thinking about the possibility of something like ChatGPT long before it launched. He’s the founder and CEO of Crossplag, a company that began as a multilingual plagiarism checker, similar to Turnitin. He said his software can tell if, for example, a student copied something from an Italian research journal, translated it into English and pasted it into an essay they turned in. The program is similar to Turnitin’s. 

Kunushevci said his software can detect whether submitted text was written by a human or a bot, co-written by both, or even if the student used a program to paraphrase the bot-written text (presumably, an attempt to throw off this type of checker). I tested it by copying a draft of this article into the checker. The system gave it a score of 1 percent and said it was likely written by a human. When I copied in a short story about squirrels from ChatGPT, it received a score of 94 percent, meaning “This text is mainly written by an AI.”

Next, Kunushevci said, he’s hoping to create a system that can learn the style of one person’s writing, and then detect if something is submitted that doesn’t seem to be written by that person. With Crossplag, he said he is trying to eliminate academic dishonesty, one pesky form at a time, even as it evolves.

Related: Artificial intelligence is infiltrating higher ed, from admissions to grading

Curiously, other ideas about ways to cheat have been popping up in my inbox recently. My best guess? A bot added me to the wrong email list. If a human was involved at any point, I can’t imagine why they’d send an education reporter emails with subject lines like “Write My Research Paper For Me: Top Paper Writing Services” and “Free Essay Writers: TOP 5 Affordable Services Online” and “8 Best Custom Writing Services Available Online Today.”

These emails answer questions such as whether it’s legal to have someone else write your paper for you (they say it’s “absolutely legal”), whether it counts as cheating (they say it doesn’t), how far in advance you need to contract this service and whether it’s a better idea to go for a paid or free service (you can guess which option they recommend). 

These emails pitch services with names like 99Papers.com, which says it can take the academic weight off your shoulders (for about $10 per page), and PaperHelp.org, which offers “degreed-writers” and “plagiarism free papers” for roughly the same price. The latter lets you view writer profiles, but includes only a generic cartoon, an ID number, and supposed areas of expertise. 

I’d like to tell you more about these services, but unfortunately, exactly zero of the email addresses they listed worked. They all bounced back with an error message, and I couldn’t get hold of anyone to talk about them. Maybe they finally did get a human involved and realized that boasting to a reporter about ways to cheat in college might not be in their best interest. (But, if you’re reading this, Hi! I’d still love to talk to you!)

This column about ChatGPT was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s higher education newsletter.

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