ChatGPT Gives Writing Edtech Its Moment

Over the past couple of weeks, panic about Open AI’s ChatGPT has taken over schools. The AI’s ability to answer writing prompts uncannily well set off alarm bells in secondary classrooms, as teachers worried about their students using this tool to cheat. An article in The Atlantic, “The End of High-School English,” stoked fears about what ChatGPT’s capabilities might mean for writing instruction and assessment. But not everyone in education is afraid of artificial intelligence’s impact on writing. For those working on edtech to teach writing, the technology fueling ChatGPT and the hoopla surrounding it may be a boon.

American teens are in a writing crisis. In 2011, The nation’s report card found that just 27% of high school seniors reached or surpassed NAEP’s “proficient” level. Despite this alarming figure, writing deficiencies get little notice. Almost all of the attention goes to reading and math performance, which are also abysmal, especially post-pandemic. The buzz around ChatGPT may change this, however, and finally get students’ writing struggles the recognition they need to garner investment in ending them.

Challenges to Eradicating the Writing Crisis

Daniel Stedman, CEO and founder of Pressto, an edtech tool that uses AI and journalism to teach and engage kids in writing, thinks that the writing crisis doesn’t get much attention because it’s hard to measure. The missing results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing test support this hypothesis. Data from that year isn’t available because, as the NAEP website explains, there were “potentially confounding factors in measuring performance.” If even the National Center for Education Statistics can’t figure out how to evaluate writing mastery, teachers stand little chance.

It’s not just the measurement issue that’s fueling the crisis, though; difficulty teaching writing skills is too. “Once we move beyond sentence construction—not an easy thing in and of itself—and into writing as a vehicle for critical thinking, argumentation and reasoning, both the issues at hand and the methods through which to address them become murkier,” said Peter Gault, executive director and founder of Quill, an edtech nonprofit that offers free writing tools for students.

Given these challenges, educators need high-quality resources for writing instruction and assessment, but they have little to none. Edtech companies, like Quill and Pressto, are hoping to change this.

Edtech’s Solutions for Writing Instruction and ChatGPT

Since being founded in 2014, Quill has been growing its suite of AI-powered instructional tools, serving seven million students to date. Their most recent offering asks students to answer writing prompts about given texts, and then uses AI to analyze their responses and generate customized commentary and guidance on how to improve.

But will programs like ChatGPT make writing instruction, and Quill’s and Pressto’s work, obsolete? Stedman doesn’t think so. In fact, he thinks that tools like ChatGPT will make programs that can effectively teach writing and get kids excited about this subject even more valuable and in demand. “These new tools, [like ChatGPT,] draw attention to the importance of teaching kids to organize and create strong writing on their own and the failure of the current educational system to do so,” he said. Just like STEAM, STEM, and SEL had their moments, he thinks that now may be writing’s time to shine, with the advancement of AI-powered writing tools being “the most exciting thing happening in technology right now.”

Many teachers agree. Although the loudest responses to AI essay writing have been negative, some educators welcome the new tools. They plan to use ChatGPT essays as examples of mediocre writing that they’ll assign their students to edit and improve. Others will use the new technology themselves and have it draft their lesson plans, student feedback, recommendation letters, and rubrics. They realize that writing technology won’t stop advancing, and, instead of trying to beat it, are adapting and joining it.

Quill is making plans to adapt too. Since ChatGPT’s introduction, they’ve gone “into high gear” to start building new innovations to thwart efforts to cheat with it. Others are working to counteract ChatGPT’s potential harm as well. Some teachers are trying Hugging Face’s AI detector, and OpenAI hopes to add digital watermarks to ChatGPT’s work.

Gault feels optimistic about technology’s ability to solve the very obstacles that it’s creating. “With the proper safeguards, we know that we can build a world in which AI responsibly and constructively advances student learning.”

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