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Opinion: How Can Teachers Ethically Incorporate AI Chatbots into ELA?

An educational consultant describes several specific examples, such as having students analyze and improve chatbot-generated essays, coach the chatbot to do better, and test what AI can and can’t do.

Illustration of a blue robot typing on a laptop. White background.
Chat bots can be helpful to educators and AI should be harnessed not banned. (Dreamstime/TNS)
The threat of AI chatbots enabling rampant cheating in academic and professional spheres has grabbed national attention since the introduction of the first free, publicly accessible AI chatbots in late 2022. Since college application season is around the corner, and this is the first year where applicants will have generalized access to AI, a team at the education consulting firm Advantage Ivy Tutoring decided to test the four most widely available AI chatbots — ChatGPT, GPT-4, Bing Chat and Bard — to see what caliber of application essay the bots were capable of generating. Our results were varied. Three out of four of the mainstream chatbots we tested were not at all capable of generating essays that would get them through the gates at any selective institution. Their responses were flat, plainly derivative, and lacking in color, animation, narrative dimension and insight. GPT-4 was by a country mile the most sophisticated bot we tested, capable of leveraging a remarkably varied syntax and vibrant language to craft answers with nuance and style. But its deficiencies in authenticity, depth of insight, redundancies, and narrative texture still mean its efforts would be insufficient to support a student’s bid at our nation’s top postsecondary educational institutions. And with AI detection software getting better by the minute, one has to wonder: Why risk it? Having your essay flagged as AI by the office of undergraduate admissions would certainly be an efficient way to crater your college dreams.

Ethical and practical avenues do exist, however, for incorporating AI into secondary school writing curriculums. Specifically, targeted engagements with AI could help high school students to develop their writing skills in anticipation of application season, and for college prep in general. Interactive, AI-integrated assignments could also help keep students interested and engaged in a more dynamic learning model.

One promising avenue involves leveraging AI for strategic insight into the craft behind compelling narratives. Learning by example is a powerful mode, and chatbots are capable of presenting potent, variegated examples of reasonable quality. A sample AI-involved assignment would be to challenge students to write an essay in collaboration with AI, where the duo would address a given prompt together and engage in conversation about myriad elements of the writing process. It could require some initial research — AI’s wheelhouse, though it’s important for students to fact-check, as AI is notorious for hallucinating information — or simply be creative by nature. In order to produce the best possible essay, students would be challenged to identify areas for improvement, and coach the chatbot to address them. The student might then explicate their coaching strategies and evaluate the chatbot’s work, identifying its strengths and weaknesses. Back in the classroom, students could read a packet of anonymized essays in breakout groups, and discuss which essays resonated with them and why.

Teachers could use the assignment as an occasion to review several elements of craft that contribute to a compelling essay — diction, syntax, narrative structure, imagery, narrative voice, etc. — and encourage a class discussion centering on the virtues and vices of chatbot-generated essays. For instance, the bots are capable of generating identical or nearly identical responses to the same prompt — a phenomenon that students would likely discover in an assignment like this, where dozens of essays are being generated from the same prompt. The risk here is crystal clear: Plagiarism is not just morally wrong, but pragmatically unwise.

Ultimately, AI-integrated assignments would help to dispel the mystery and intrigue that surrounds AI. They would allow students to see for themselves what the chatbots are and are not capable of as writers, and foster discussion more broadly about the downsides of enlisting AI as a ghostwriter in an academic setting, and on the college essay in particular. It would also be prudent to introduce the extent to which schools are already investing in AI-detection software which, given its rapid improvement, could soon account for existing workarounds, such as rewriting or rewording passages to scrub them of apparent AI influence.

Indeed, there are AI detectors on the market that are already remarkably good at their jobs — detecting AI-generated work 98 percent of the time — and engineers are just getting started. The attention and demand that met GPTZero, AI-detection software designed by a Princeton undergrad, exemplifies academia’s concerns about preserving academic integrity in the face of AI. As demand abhors a vacuum, supply will soon rise in kind. So, students will be better served by AI as a facilitator of writing skills and analytical development than by attempting to use AI to replicate or simulate writing skills or analysis.

Finally, and most importantly, the injuries to personal and academic integrity involved in enlisting AI ghostwriters should be explored with students conscientiously and in some depth. Using an AI ghostwriter is cheating, plain and simple. Students may try to rationalize to themselves that it’s not as bad as stealing work from another human, but it’s still a fundamental, unethical misrepresentation of core competencies. It also goes without saying that cribbing off of AI is self-defeating as far as learning is concerned. Writing application essays, in particular, is a key milestone in a young person’s journey, and a pivotal opportunity for personal growth.

Ultimately, the downsides to enlisting AI ghostwriters abound, but the upsides to incorporating AI into the classroom are also abundant. The chatbots are best equipped to be useful sounding boards and highlighters; to do engaging sample work; to engage in essay tutoring; to demonstrate strengths and weaknesses by example; and to be thought-provoking, supplemental tools for educators and scholars alike. But they’re not built to have thoughts, or to express them, and it’s best to leave that — the original thinking, feeling, expressing — to the human mind, the planet’s most powerful processor.

Margaret M. Kelly is an educational consultant and application strategist specializing in the college essay at Advantage Ivy Tutoring, where she helps students earn spots at top colleges and universities. Margaret fell in love with language and learning at Phillips Academy, Andover, after which she earned an A.B. with honors in political theory from Princeton University; a J.D. from Virginia Law; and an M.F.A. in poetry and literature from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.