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A teacher's dilemma with chatGPT

(Opinion Column in Khaleej Times dated 8 February, 2023)

As a creative writing coach for children, the hardest thing I have had to face after lessons turned online is to keep my students out of the right-mouse-click habit whenever a red line appeared in their passages. The moment the red herring appeared, they sought correction from the language processing program embedded in the system and did the wrong thing rightly. Error found and fixed without a thought spared to the fundamentals of language.

It took constant monitoring and remonstration to make them quit the habit of using instant grammar tools and additionally, to deter them from using the internet for completing tasks that did not need research. A teacher can smell a student’s felony from a mile, and she will do everything within her means to stop learning from getting smeared by con jobs.

‘If I hadn’t learned to write from you, I would have used chatGPT for my essays now,’ one of them tittered during a recent discussion about the new viral phenomenon that is making anyone capable of typing words in English into instant story tellers, poets, essayists and content creators.

The student’s candour should have made me balk, but did it? No. Instead, I took comfort in the thought that the student had chosen to write by the rules he had picked up from me than take the shortcut to crafting his essays. What I saw in him and all the others, who by now are amply equipped, is a sense of confidence in a set of linguistic and creative skills that they could call their own.

This is what makes true intelligence stand out from its artificial counterparts that are now spawning tools and techniques like guppies. A lot has been said and written about the new response generating program, ChatGPT, most of which has been positive for the apparent benefits it offers someone with literary and conceptual deficiency.

Anything that makes a task easier establishes symbiotic connection with our brain. In the end, it is ease that makes us choose one way over the other, and artificial intelligence has helped us steer through a futuristic world rather smoothly.

As a teacher who is also an author to whom words are sacred and every written sentence is a hymn, the emergence of tools that appropriate human thought is a dilemma. While the teacher in me weighs in on the advantages in terms of allowing children to be helped in their assignments, there is a question that looms large in the background. ‘What do I want my students to be? Robots and response generating machines, or thinking individuals who can take responsibility for their lives?’

The idea of AI-aided-writing is not intimidating on its own, but when it is stacked up against ethics and emotions, two major components of human intellect and conduct, pertinent questions begin to emerge. Add one more element – creativity – to it and the writer in me begins to squirm.

Despite the widespread concerns raised, the popular views that have sprung up in the wake of chatGPT’s acceptance give me solace. None of what I have heard dismisses it as superfluous; it is being given the benefit of doubt by evaluators and educators. When employed moderately, with checks and balances in place, students can probably find a lot of value in it. But where do we draw the line? How do we stop people from falling victim to temptations – of filching ideas and calling them their own for quick gains? Should seeking advice, albeit from an artificial source, to write our ballads and bestsellers be labelled illicit, or should we normalise it?

Even as I am typing this piece into my laptop, the AI in the background is relentlessly prompting me with words and sentence completions. While an enterprising content creator who is only aiming at churning out passages for commercial use might be thrilled at the suggestions that are coming her way, the true literary aficionado in me is giving it a royal ignore.

The predicament for people of my ilk is only just beginning. With Google announcing plans to launch its own rival version of ChatGPT, there is going to be a glut of imitation ideas out there for us to lunge at and leverage. I will have to strive harder to let my students realise that they have the liberty to use the platforms, but true creative satisfaction comes only when the piece they write is drawn from their own intelligence and presented in their own voice.

My task now will be to make them see the difference between ingenuity and borrowed talent and let them decide for themselves what would give them a true sense of accomplishment. As I often suggest to them, the choice is theirs – to usurp their writing or to give it a personal voice. As their mentor, I give them an option – AI for artificial intelligence or AI, for the initials of my name. Time and again, they have chirruped in unison, ‘the latter, ma’am.’ And therein lies my hope.

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