AI is being used by students to produce essays and projects

A story has been appearing in the regional press about a cross-bench peer, John Pakington (Baron Hampton) who is, unusually, also a working teacher. He is concerned that students are using Artificial Intelligence systems to produce essays, technical designs and even works of art and then passing them off as their own. He says:

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, at the moment, that suggests that students are using AI for everything from essays and poetry to university applications and, rather more surprisingly, in the visual arts subjects. Just before Christmas, one of my product design A-level students came up to me and showed me some designs he’d done.

He’d taken a cardboard model, photographed it, put it into a free piece of software, put in three different parameters and had received, within minutes, 20 high-resolution designs, all original, that were degree level – they weren’t A-level, they were degree level. At the moment, it’s about plagiarism and it’s about fighting the software – I would like to ask when the Government is planning to meet with education professionals and the exam boards to actually work out (how) to design a new curriculum that embraces the new opportunity rather than fighting it.

Tim Clement-Jones is our Digital spokesperson in the House of Lords and he agreed with his fellow peer:

This question clearly concerns a very powerful new generative probabilistic type of artificial intelligence that we ought to encourage in terms of creativity, but not in terms of cheating or deception.

Some 30 years ago I was studying AI as part of my Masters degree. Many of the same tropes were circulating then as now: “AI will make people lazy”, “Many jobs will be lost to machines” – similar sentiments have been expressed whenever there is a substantial shift in technology, from Jacquard looms to automated car production. But this time there is the added fear that AI will “take over” and we will become the redundant playthings of super machines. In practice, many of the techniques that I was looking at then are now embedded in our technologies; they improve productively and are hugely beneficial to society. They support and amplify our activities rather than replace them, although, as this evidence suggests, they can also present new challenges.

Andy Boddington had some fun with the latest AI chatbot, ChatGPT, and generated a passable short essay and some rather dubious poetry. When I say “passable” I mean that it is almost impossible to tell that it has been generated by software and not by a real person.  It is also possible that ChatGPT could pass the Turing Test and win the Loebner Prize.

Of course, the issue of plagiarism has dogged educational assessment for many years. Academics routinely use plagiarism detection systems for essays, and I have a couple of examples from my own professional experience.

Years ago I was Head of Computing in an FE College. A third of the marks for the A Level in Computing were awarded for a practical project – which is still the case. After we had assessed the projects internally we had to send a random sample to the Moderator who checked for overall consistency. One year the Moderator contacted me about one of the projects I had sent her, because she had marked an identical one the year before. The student was disqualified and we tightened up on our monitoring of projects in progress. Once a week, while other students were working on their projects I would hold individual conversations with each one and would keep a note of where they had got to.  When a project was finally submitted I had to sign it off, stating that I believed it to be the work of the student. I refused to sign off anyone who had not attended sufficient monitoring sessions with me. In some cases I had to deal with angry and threatening parents because I refused to endorse the work.

In another segment of my working life I was training teachers and was handed a dissertation which seemed far beyond the competence of the student. My approach then (prior to online resources) was to interview her. As it happens she did seem to know her stuff and I accepted, though not without some doubts, that it was her work.

I mention these two examples because one of the kneejerk reactions by the Government to student plagiarism has been to cut down on assessed coursework, even though the educational value of doing projects and creative work is immense. Removal of coursework sacrifices education at the altar of assessment and comparability. It would be so much better to develop methods which allow students to explore the problem solving and creative aspects of their subjects in an honest way. A good place to start is to consider those subjects which cannot function without a non-exam assessment  – Art, Design, Drama, Music as well as Computing.  What constraints are put in place in these subjects to ensure that the student work is actually done by them?

Using AI is not plagiarism, strictly speaking, since it does not involve passing off another person’s output as your own. However it is clearly cheating so needs to be challenged.  The AI industry now has to find technical solutions to the problem it has created, as it has done in the past, and teachers need to be alerted to the potential issues.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • “Using AI is not plagiarism, strictly speaking, since it does not involve passing off another person’s output as your own.”

    That’s not entirely clear – the AI has been trained on a large sample of pre-existing data mostly made by other people. Given the right/wrong prompting, many of them will reproduce identifiable parts of their training data verbatim, which clearly would then be plagiarism to use even if you’re attempting to use a computer program to disguise it. Copyright lawyers are already circling some uses of AI as a result.

    More generally an AI being a particularly incomprehensible computer program shouldn’t stop it being treated as any other computer program when it comes to questions about accountability. If someone uses an AI to provide the words of an essay and claims it as their own work, that should be considered plagiarism of the authors of the AI whose work it actually was. (The AI industry would generally rather prefer that “we don’t know why the AI did that” equated to “and therefore it’s not our fault”, of course, and there are much more serious matters than a bit of essay generation where that would be extremely bad)

  • It looks like John Pakington, whilst raising a valid concern is misunderstanding what needs to change. It isn’t the curriculum that needs to change so much as the interaction with students and the way work is assessed. Interestingly, Mary with her in-person progress monitoring and regular verbal presentations seems to have better grasp of the way forward; along with that important look back and compare current project work with student submissions from previous years.

    >Andy Boddington had some fun with the latest AI chatbot
    There are people doing some real-world testing of ChatGPT, I particularly like this recently reported example: – full article no pay wall 🙂

  • Mel Borthwaite 21st Jan '23 - 9:23am

    Traditional written exams, which seek to provide an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate academic knowledge and understanding, have the disadvantage of favouring candidates who are able to retain knowledge over longer periods of time and those who prefer to ‘cram’ just before the assessment – boys, generally, prefer to ‘cram’ and boys tend to outperform girls on traditional written exams. In recent decades, assessment systems have increasingly embraced continuous assessment and coursework, which generally favours girls who on average ‘cram’ less and prefer to work more consistently over time. The result of this move is that girls now outperform boys in results obtained from most school qualifications. Therefore the way we react to the increase in ways that cheating can take place in courses that give credit for coursework, essays written at home, etc will likely have an equality impact if it results in a move back to less reliance on assessment methods that can not be fully supervised.

  • Using an AI to write your essay isn’t easily defined as plagiarism, but it is still cheating, because it’s not your own work. However, as a retired University Lecturer, I can tell you that it’s not always easy to spot plagiarism, unless you happen to mark the two scripts and spot that they are the same or very similar. As for spotting an AI written essay, even more difficult to spot, unless it uses stilted language or language you doubt the student would use themselves.

  • Peter Martin 21st Jan '23 - 11:27am

    “Traditional written exams…..have the disadvantage of favouring candidates who are able to retain knowledge over longer periods of time and those who prefer to ‘cram’ just before the assessment”

    I doubt that ‘cramming’ is any substitute for either a good understanding of, or depth of knowledge in any subject which is what is needed to do well in examinations. Whatever disadvantages exams might have, they are relatively cheat free. Even without the complication of AI, or even the internet itself, set assignments cannot be assumed to always be completed by the students themselves. Many will have considerable assistance from others, mainly parents, whereas others will have very little.

    This obviously discriminates on the basis of social class. There is no ideal system but I cannot see any alternative to examinations if we want to minimise ‘cheating’.

  • Massimo Ricciuti 21st Jan '23 - 1:04pm

    Thank you, Mary!

  • James Fowler 21st Jan '23 - 8:09pm

    The volume of plagiarism is quite extraordinary, and often unpenalized – it’s easier to ignore it. Remote learning over lockdown gave plagiarism and collusion an enormous boost. Happily there are some solutions – I like the idea of vivas – though they do come at a considerable uplift in staffing.

  • Andrew Tampion 23rd Jan '23 - 11:08am

    It is important to recognise that both assessed coursework and examination have advantages and disadvantages. Moreover these two methods may also favour different types of student. Therefore I think that Peter Martin is right to say that exams have a place.
    One solution would be a combination of exams and assessed coursework. This would have the advantage that the exam scripts could be compared with the coursework and and descrepancies such as word choice could be investigated. This would work in a similar way to the example Mary Reid gives of interviewing a student who had submitted a dissertation that seemed beyond her ability.
    Also students could be required to answer questions on their assessed coursework in the form of a viva.

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