January 24, 2023

The term paper has always been a misguided assignment, arbitrarily graded with little student-professor engagement, apart from awkward office-hour meetings during which errors are enumerated and deductions explained.

The revenge of the chatbot awaits these instructors.

I realize that journalism programs must uphold writing standards. So must English, public relations, advertising and other content-based disciplines.

The news media has published hundreds of stories on how AI chatbots, especially ChatGPT, have threatened the existence of the term paper. Why not examine the shortcomings of that to see if the assignment is worth saving?

For many students, composition is a chore. Generation Z has been told that chores are best handled by machines. So yes, AI chatbots will be popular because the software facilitates convenience without users realizing the proprietary algorithms.

Just as in previous innovative technologies, from Facebook to TikTok, teachers and students who use AI chatbots might not have read the terms of service.

For instance, in ChatGPT, service terms state: “One of the main benefits of machine learning models is that they can be improved over time. To help OpenAI provide and maintain the Services, you agree and instruct that we may use Content to develop and improve the Services.”

As such, organizations (including media) that use AI chatbots might want to contact their internal security experts as to risk, which include everything from spoofing, impersonating others and data theft.

Professors have often embraced technological innovation, introducing new gadgets or applications into lesson plans and basing courses on them without actually understanding the programming and marketing strategies.

Remember “Second Life?” (Probably not.) Launched in 2003, it became the rage with many institutions investing thousands in what essentially was an interactive video game. In the process, students were exposed to risqué avatar behaviors common to the platform, including virtual sexual assault.

Then there was Duke University’s ill-fated 2005 “iPod First Year Experience” with administrators believing students would use the device for lectures and podcasts rather than for music.

Again, the medium was the moral.

Now Duke and other universities have “influencer” classes using TikTok, even as some institutions, including my own, have banned the Chinese company’s application. TikTok’s service terms are among the most intrusive.

However, with the introduction of AI chatbots — especially ChatGPT, which has the ability to compose essays — the professorial reception has ranged from tepid to fright. As The Washington Post reported, “Teachers and professors across the education system are in a near-panic as they confront a revolution in artificial intelligence that could allow for cheating on a grand scale.”

Disciplinary demise

Some professors may fret about cheating, but what really concerns many is the death of the term paper. It has been a staple of education since the 19th century. Easy to assign, it pits the teacher’s knowledge against the student’s. Grading is varied and subjective with little oversight.

It’s a power trip. And chatbots are challenging that power.

I won’t bore you with the linguistic flaws of ChatGPT. It produces text replete with cliches, padding, misinterpretations and more. In sum, machine prose mirrors that of the typical first-year composition student.

That says more about K-12 education than technological innovation.

In 2017, The New York Times published “Why Kids Can’t Write,” blaming Common Core State Standards that required students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative. This approach was favored over previous standards emphasizing reading comprehension.

As the Times noted, “Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.”

Before chatbots, I argued against the term paper. Hard sciences have experiments; the humanities and social sciences have essays. As you might expect with the latter, subjectivity rules. True, you can deduct points for misspellings, awkward locutions, comma splices, wrong verb tense, subject-verb disagreement, wordiness, grammatical errors and more. Some teachers deduct a point or two for any of these and others, an entire grade.

More troubling is how professors deduct points when the student viewpoint differs from their own or when the assigned paper lacks a theme or approved bibliography. I am not questioning the instructor’s acumen. I am highlighting the grading disparities, which vary from person to person, class to class.

That’s what students remember.

As one science educational site notes, “The evaluation of written assignments is an inherently subjective activity, at least from the perspective of students. The grading of written assignments is most prone to the appearance of unfairness. When students think they’re being treated unfairly, they are not inclined to focus on learning.”

Some students are so affronted that they resort to plagiarism or paper mills, stealing or paying for content. In turn, institutions purchase anti-plagiarism applications — a $737-million-dollar growing industry — and invest time and effort in judiciary processes.

Lacking in many articles about chatbots is what may replace the term paper.

The New York Times reports that university professors, department chairs and administrators “are starting to overhaul classrooms in response to ChatGPT, prompting a potentially huge shift in teaching and learning.” Some of those changes include “more oral exams, group work and handwritten assessments in lieu of typed ones.”

Role reversal

What if we switched the essay assignment, with teachers posting and/or publishing course-specific content throughout the semester and asking students to read and critique that in online and discussion sessions?

That kind of interaction is seldom rewarded.

At many universities, term (non-tenurable) instructors are expected to teach. Tenure-track ones are expected to research. There is no incentive for term faculty to write, let alone publish. Tenured professors often do research with little correlation to assigned classes, particularly at the undergraduate level.

A 2007 study in the Journal of Engineering Education examined whether faculty research informed undergraduate education. The authors state there “can be little doubt that potential synergies exist between faculty research and undergraduate teaching, but empirical studies clearly show that the existing linkage is weak.” However, the authors note, a chief reason is that faculty research “is not widely and effectively integrated into undergraduate courses.”

I make a point to do so in my media ethics courses, writing op-eds and commentary directly associated with course content. Educational software like Canvas and Blackboard have discussion boards where students can read what the professor writes and then offer their opinion in a continuing dialogue that not only enhances reading comprehension but also fosters student-teacher engagement that may continue face-to-face in office hours.

I do not grade the interactions but offer modest extra credit for each critique. That reduces the pressure. What students don’t realize is that they are writing, sometimes so informatively that they change or challenge my viewpoint.

In place of essays, I have exams that test students’ knowledge of terms and concepts covered in class. The tests are rigorous, so students take advantage of the extra credit discussion boards.

Reading incomprehension

I am less concerned about students’ ability to write than I am about their inability to read and understand content.

This observation is critical for the news media as we continue to lose audience because reading levels have declined. Not only are students comprehending less, one study found that high school graduates read 19% slower than their counterparts a half-century ago. Another recent study reports that children are reading and enjoying it less, distracted by digital devices.

These factors augur a dismal future for our industry.

A few years ago I was assigned to teach a class titled “Technology and Social Change” during which we analyzed the various views about social media and consumer technologies. I didn’t require a term paper. Instead, I asked each student to read a technical or philosophical book and then inform the class about what, if anything, they learned from the experience.

I gave students extra credit if they read a print book rather than a digital one. It was an illuminating experience for several students and one that also generated national interest.

One student wrote, “Throughout my time reading The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt, I will admit that I was very distracted by my phone, laptop, noises outside my apartment. … I needed to make a change or find a better place to read, or else I wasn’t going to finish reading this book in time. So, given that, I decided to go to the library.”

How appropriate! The library is the mother of all books.

Many students had not read a physical one for years. In a class survey, some 92% enjoyed the experience, and 73% found their cellphones a distraction, interrupting their reading.

That digital effect reminded students that books, the ultimate firewalled medium, fostered knowledge. Reading a book online was no substitute.

Chatbots, however, may be a substitute for writing in the humanities and social sciences. Replacement assignments should engage students via reading and discussion.

Of course I realize that many editors, publishers and reporters cherish writing and long for bygone eras when most high school graduates possessed a modicum of literary skills.

Given the current digital climate, ponder what is more important now, writing or reading.

There will always be writers who amaze, inspire and inform us, and teachers can assign those works as part of pedagogy. No chatbot can match the brilliance of their narratives because machines have no conscience.

As a futurist and journalist, my biggest fear is the decline of reading and its impact on our profession.

We, too, have a role to play in shaping the national discourse on AI chatbots.

If the news media fail to focus on reading, the genius of literary masters will be overlooked and perhaps, in asynchronous time, even forgotten.

Michael Bugeja will conduct a free national Zoom presentation about ChatGPT and education on Jan. 30, 2023, at 2 p.m. Central time.

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Michael Bugeja, a regular contributor at Poynter, is author of "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press) and "Living Media Ethics"…
Michael Bugeja

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