Is it surprising that ChatGPT’s widespread availability has led to college students (anecdotally) adopting it as a 21st-century essay mill? Not even a little bit. But inevitability doesn’t make it any less depressing — or, as Ian Bogost points out, any less confusing. As it turns out, the usual tools teachers use to suss out plagiarism seem as stumped by AI as the teachers themselves are. The result is a future that neither students nor professors seem equipped to navigate.
Some students probably are using AI at 100 percent: to complete their work absent any effort of their own. But many use ChatGPT and other tools to generate ideas, help them when they’re stuck, rephrase tricky paragraphs, or check their grammar.
Where one behavior turns into another isn’t always clear. Matthew Boedy, an English professor at the University of North Georgia, told me about one student so disengaged, he sometimes attended class in his pajamas. When that student submitted an uncharacteristically adept essay this spring, Boedy figured a chatbot was involved, and OpenAI’s verification tool confirmed as much. The student admitted that he hadn’t known how to begin, so he asked ChatGPT to write an introduction, and then to recommend sources. Absent a firm policy on AI cheating to lean on, Boedy talked through the material with the student in person and graded him based on that conversation.
A computer-science student at Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach, saw some irony in the sudden shift from giving fully open-book assignments earlier in the pandemic to this year’s attitude of “you can use anything except AI.” (I’m withholding the names of students so that they can be frank about their use of AI tools.) This student, who also works as a teaching assistant, knows firsthand that computers can help solve nearly every technical exercise that is assigned in CS courses, and some conceptual ones too. But taking advantage of the technology “feels less morally bankrupt,” he said, “than paying for Chegg or something.” A student who engages with a chatbot is doing some kind of work for themselves—and learning how to live in the future.