A revolution in the writing process is quietly underway on the internet, writes Dr Lucinda McKnight, Senior Lecturer in Education (Pedagogy and Curriculum), Deakin University.
Much of what we read on the internet now is written by machines, not humans. Artificial intelligence (AI), through natural language processing (NLP) and generation (NLG) can now write like humans.
This is a hurdle that even recently humans imagined computers could never leap and it has major implications for education. If the writing of the future is to be done by machines, what should children be taught?
AI can now be trained on vast datasets. Imagine a writer who has read and processed everything on the internet. That’s an AI writer. It has read a huge amount of text and is therefore able to make reliable predictions about sequences of words that make ‘sense’ to humans, even if the machines do not really ‘understand’ what they have written.
Here is an example of an AI authored text, for a website homepage, created in seconds when I told the AI I need a blurb for a personal trainer:
I am experienced with personal training, athletic performance, and nutrition. This includes working with children, pregnant women, older adults, people with disabilities, athletes, and anyone looking to achieve a competitive edge, improve their overall health, and overall performance. I also have an interest in alternative health, including wellness coaching and nutrition counselling. In my spare time, I enjoy spending time with my family, the outdoors, and writing.
Relying on AI is nothing new. For decades humans have been writing with AI, in the form of spelling and grammar checkers built into word processors. Early on, teachers tried to ban or discount these services, but over time they have become accepted and routine and have expanded into widely used apps such as Grammarly. This is likely to be the case with AI writers too, as what seems extraordinary now becomes mundane.
Already AI is writing reports, newsletters, articles, slogans, scripts, poetry and novels. Its capabilities are increasing dramatically. In 2019 the New Yorker published a famous article assessing GPT-2, an NLG created by OpenAI,funded by well-known businessman Elon Musk. It found it rather lacking.
In 2020, new version GPT-3 wrote a whole article for The Guardian newspaper entitled “A robot wrote this whole article: Are you scared yet human?”. I encourage you to search for and read these articles online to assess how quickly things are changing.
Humans are on the brink of a major rethink about what writing actually is and what needs to be taught in schools so that students have useful skills for the future.
Computers are good at doing what they are told. They follow rules and formulas. Alas, in a dead-end move, writing education for children in Australia has become more formulaic, as a result of NAPLAN.
We are teaching students to write in ways that have been superseded by machines. An education in the basics, while essential, is not enough to make humans valuable in the writing scenarios of the future.
Need to break rules
Humans can innovate, they have real purposes and needs. They feel emotion, including compassion, and can empathise. They perceive unkindness and cruelty. They can be funny – they understand humour, nuance, subtlety and irony.
Humans understand multiple complex contexts and motivations. They make informed, evaluative judgements: they can edit and refine. They can think and act in ethical ways, in line with their consciences and human psychology.
Fundamentally, humans can break rules. The challenge for curriculum designers and teachers is to come up with a writing education that makes the most of these features, rather than crushing them through rote learning and rote writing.
Teachers need to grasp how writing is changing and find ways for their students to fulfil their potential as writing partners with AI. Drilling in basic grammar and spelling, formulas for writing such as TEEL (Topic, Evidence, Elaboration, Link) or the five-paragraph essay, which only permits three ideas in three body paragraphs, are limited distortions of the writing of which humans are capable.
A focus on expository writing or analysis of texts rather than more creative forms of writing will not serve writers of the future well. Writing in exam conditions does not replicate the process of initiating, collating, evaluating and refining machine-generated text, which is the basis of much ‘writing’ already.
Instead, students need to be drafting and revising their own and others’ (including machines’) work, learning editing skills, acknowledging sources, understanding algorithmic thinking so they can perceive the shortcomings of robot writers, breaking rules for aesthetic or other purposes and critically evaluating the conscience-free, internet-trained outputs of AI that reproduce existing biases.
Let’s get creative
What would an English curriculum that prioritised emotion, enjoyment, ethics, integrity, lived human experience, cultural insights, high-level writing skills (not just the basics) and AI analysis be like?
What would an English curriculum that focuses on the precious human capacity for creative experimentation be like, or a curriculum that embraces opportunities to participate in writing assemblages, with machines?
For anyone who wants to insist that humans will always be superior writers, and this whole scenario is unlikely, consider the capabilities of AI writers.
They can write in an unlimited number of languages, source images, create metadata, design headlines, format landing pages, put together a digital promotion campaign via Instagram or other social media ads, offer content ideas, expand bullet points and optimise text for search engines.
They can offer hundreds of different versions of an original text. They can do all this in the time it takes me to click my fingers. There is no competition here. Machines are outstanding at creating the kind of writing that is required for effective communication today. Students need to exploit these machine capabilities, as co-writers for digital platforms and audiences.
The tragedy is that our schooling system seems geared, through pressure from government for systems data that show improvement, to educate students in a kind of writing that is not needed today.
As a university lecturer, I have students in my English method classes who have not the least idea of how to write for the screen, let alone write with AI. Their 13 years of literacy education has not even touched on how to arrange, structure and compose text that works for a blog post, or a website.
They generally do not know: what colours and contrasts work on screens; what width a row of text should be for readability; how to chunk information; what length sentences and paragraphs can be onscreen or what size and style fonts to use.
The inadequacy of our current English education for contemporary writing purposes, forms, audiences and contexts is clear. These students’ education has not prepared them for the tertiary environment, where digital tasks, and authentic, real-world assessment are common, let alone for a workplace in which they will write with AI. How will they be able to judge and refine the digital products that machine writers present them with?
Australian teachers need time, money and professional learning to get to grips with the changing world of communication and the revolution in writing taking place around us. Writing in schools needs to be real writing.
References and further reading
GPT-3. (2020, Tuesday 8 September). A robot wrote this entire article: Are you scared yet human? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/08/robot-wrote-this-article-gpt-3
Hutson, M. (2021, 3 March). Robo-writers: The rise and risks of language generating AI. Nature. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00530-0
McGaw, B., Louden, W., & Wyatt-Smith, C. (2020). NAPLAN review: Final report (pp. 1-180): State of New South Wales, State of Victoria, State of Queensland and ACT.
Perelman, L. (2018). Towards a new NAPLAN: Testing to the teaching (pp. 1-50). Surry Hills, NSW: New South Wales Teachers Federation.
Seabrook, J. (2019, October 14). The next word. The New Yorker.