Corporate A.I. Helping Students Cheat?

“The academic world is one of fierce competition. Students are under immense pressure to succeed, and the pressure only intensifies as they move closer to graduation. In this context, it’s no surprise that some students resort to academic misconduct in order to get ahead. Unfortunately, there are companies that are all too willing to help them cheat. These companies offer a range of services, from writing essays to taking exams, and they market their services to desperate students who are willing to pay for a leg up. While these companies may argue that they are simply providing a service, there is no question that they are enabling and even encouraging academic misconduct. As such, it is difficult to see how they can operate ethically.”

The paragraph above was not written by me, nor by any other human being. It was 100% written by a commercially-available artificial intelligence service called Jasper. Anybody can use this service for a modest fee.

To get that paragraph, I primed the process by inputting only this topic question, “Is it ethical for companies to help university students engage in academic misconduct?”, and then asking the A.I. to create a paragraph with a “professional” tone (as opposed to a witty, friendly, angry, or polite tone). And note that the paragraph is not copied from somewhere else on the web: it is an original piece of writing, written by an A.I. that has access to the collective knowledge-base embodied in the Internet.

The resulting paragraph is not exactly deep, but it’s definitely on-target: it correctly but briefly points to the main issues at stake, and it does so with impeccable grammar. The paragraph is, to be brutally blunt, better than what most undergraduate students could write.

The problem, for me, of course, is that I’m a university professor, one who assigns students questions just like “Is it ethical for companies to help university students engage in academic misconduct?” And then I grade their answers.

With the advent of commercial A.I.-driven writing services, students now have a new tool with which to cheat. Of course, students have lots of tools (everything from using a friend’s essay from last year, to plagiarizing from Wikipedia, to paying someone to write the essay for them). But the use of commercial A.I. brings together a couple of special features.

First is avoidance of plagiarism-detection mechanisms. Many professors use a variety of techniques to detect plagiarism (everything from the simple trick of putting a suspect sentence into google through to the use of text-matching services like TurnItIn). Those techniques are basically ways of determining whether the work a student has submitted is from some pre-existing source. The problem (from a prof’s point of view) with A.I.-driven services is that they produce entirely new content, not borrowed from anywhere. So if the paragraph above were to be submitted by one of my students, no plagiarism-detection technique that I know of would catch it.

Someone is going to say, “So what?” In case it’s not obvious, I’ll spell it out. A student who submitted such a paragraph to their professor would be:

  • Lying to their professor (which is bad);
  • Getting marks they don’t deserve; (which is bad)
  • Putting honest classmates at a disadvantage (by raising the bar in a context in which, inevitably, grading is at least partly relative) (which is bad).

What about the companies supplying such services? Inevitably, as this industry blossoms, there will be good and bad actors. Interestingly, “essay-writing” isn’t one of the purposes they advertise. At least that’s true of Jasper — I haven’t checked other such services. Jasper includes templates for various kinds of content you might want to create (from headlines to blog entries to marketing emails). It doesn’t seem to have a University Essay template, but it does have a Long-Form Article template, which is effectively the same thing. But this is such an obvious and attractive use of A.I.-driven writing services that there are YouTube videos explaining how to do it.

The net result, however, is that such companies like Jasper are right now selling students a service that is foreseeably going to be used–probably on a substantial scale–to commit academic fraud. It’s up to those companies (if they want to be upstanding corporate citizens) to figure out what they can do to discourage that use.

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