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Will ChatGPT make writing assignments a thing of the past?
Just as some programmes generate text, there are others that generate images. Like the open AI programme that created this realistic and original photo based on the input ‘students walking at Wageningse berg with river down below’.

ChatGPT allows students to automatically generate texts that are indistinguishable from real ones in no time (see examples below). Will this make writing assignments a thing of the past?

When assessment specialist Jolanda Soeting was confronted with ChatGPT late last year, her first reaction was certainly not ‘Oh help!’ ‘I saw a few examples of exam questions generated by the programme. Hey, I thought, that could be of interest for help in writing a good model answer. I shared it with our team of assessment specialists straightaway.’

But lecturer and researcher in Socially Responsible Innovation Auke Pols did immediately see trouble ahead. ‘I am also on the Social Sciences examination board and I did a degree in artificial intelligence. I quickly realized that ChatGPT could be misused for plagiarism purposes. Existing tools such as Turnitin, which WUR uses, cannot currently detect its use. For some kinds of writing assignments, that means you can’t carry on doing things in the same way. Gone are the days when you could send a student home to write an essay, trusting that they won’t get ChatGPT to do it.’

Not plagiarism

ChatGPT is a (so far) free online chatbot that can answer questions and write essays. The text generator was launched late last year by Open AI, an artificial intelligence development company. The programme creates texts that seem stunningly good at first glance. There are a few examples on these pages.

‘ChatGPT is able to generate a fluent and coherent story out of large amounts of text,’ Pols explains. ‘It can be either academic or narrative in style. The programme combines information from a lot of sources, without quoting them verbatim.’ That’s an important point: ChatGPT generates new texts, and plagiarism detectors like Turnitin are powerless in the face of it. 

Pols says he has no evidence yet of WUR students using ChatGPT. ‘But I can’t imagine they’re not trying it out,’ says Soeting. ‘Incidentally, I think it is less of an issue in higher education than in secondary education. We have more scope for appealing to the students’ academic principles.’ A small poll on Resource’s Instagram gives us a glimpse of the reality. A quarter of the respondents say they use ChatGPT ‘sometimes’ or ‘constantly’. And not just students, PhD candidates as well. Three quarters say they rely on their own writing skills.

The programme can’t differentiate between what is true and what is not

That seems wise. After all, ChatGPT can’t do everything yet. It can’t, for instance, properly reference the sources of its text. Soeting: ‘It does give references, but a lot of them are made up. That’s why ChatGPT is sometimes called a bullshit generator.’ ‘That is because the programme can’t differentiate between what is true and what is not,’ Pols adds. ‘It is based on information found on the internet. It can’t reflect on its writing process either. You can ask a student how they created an essay and what stages their thinking went through. ChatGPT doesn’t have a clue about that. Nor is there any personal reflection, because the programme doesn’t know the context of the question or assignment. And the programme tends to beat about the bush when it doesn’t have an answer. Then again, students can do that too when they don’t know what to write.’

Don’t ban it

So in view of these limitations, is ChatGPT an opportunity or a threat? Soeting created a discussion page on that question on the Education Support Centre’s intranet. Personally, she sees the threats, but also the opportunities. ‘Those threats are not new. I think we underestimate the extent to which ghost writing is already going on. ChatGPT makes it easier to avoid doing your own work. But the programme can also be like an additional fellow student: someone you can always go to with a question when a lecturer doesn’t have time.’

I think we underestimate the extent to which ghost writing is already going on

On one point, both are adamant: banning ChatGPT won’t help. Soeting: ‘A ban is only any use if you can enforce it. It makes more sense to teach students how to use ChatGPT properly and responsibly. But this development is still in its infancy.’ What responsible use looks like is still a grey area, Pols says. ‘And actually that’s the case even without ChatGPT. The exam board sometimes comes across text without a source reference that you think has been copied, even if it’s been paraphrased. At what point do you say: now that’s plagiarism?’ ‘True,’ says Soeting. ‘There is now software that modifies texts so they don’t look copied. In which case, I’d rather they used ChatGPT properly.’

It all starts with awareness, Pols believes. ‘What can ChatGPT do and what can’t it do? I think that’s our starting point for setting conditions for its use and thinking about what steps we can reasonably take to stop students abusing it.’

Question: Is ChatGPT plagiarism?
ChatGPT’s answer (unedited)
No, ChatGPT is not plagiarism. Plagiarism is the unauthorized use or reproduction of another’s work without giving credit or permission. ChatGPT is a computer program that has been trained on a large amount of text, but it is not a copy of someone’s work. It uses the information it has learned to respond to questions and prompts that are submitted, but it is not a copy of someone’s work.

Question: Do Humans have a free will?
ChatGPT’s answer (unedited)
The question of whether humans have free will is an ongoing debate in philosophy. Some philosophers believe that humans have free will and that they can make choices that are not determined by circumstances or prior events. Other philosophers believe that everything that humans do, including their choices, is determined by physical or natural laws, and that the human will is not truly free. This debate is still ongoing and there is no consensus.

Task: Describe WUR in 100 words
ChatGPT’s answer (unedited)
Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is a leading international university in the Netherlands that focuses on the connection between food, feed, health, and the environment. The university has a strong reputation in the fields of life sciences and natural resources, and offers undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate programs in these areas. WUR also conducts research in collaboration with industry, government and non-profit organizations. The university also has a strong international focus, with students and researchers from all over the world. WUR is renowned for its research in the field of sustainable food production, with a focus on reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.

Task: Write a sonnet for Sjoukje Heimovaara, WUR president
ChatGPT’s answer (unedited)

A leader strong and full of grace,
With knowledge deep and vast,
She guides the future of this place,
With vision that will last.

Sjoukje Heimovaara, head of WUR,
A force to be reckoned with,
Her determination, clear and pure,
A beacon for us to follow, forthwith.

She leads with passion, and with drive,
To make the world a better place,
With research, that will help thrive,
And give the future a brighter face.

So here’s a sonnet for Sjoukje true,
A leader, scholar, and visionary too.

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