Will ChatGPT replace university essay writing?

AI generated picture depicting a writer, for the growing influence of AI in various fields such as writing and photography. (Daniel Salas./AQ)

In a groundbreaking move that is set to shake up the world of higher education, ChatGPT, the AI language model developed by OpenAI, is set to replace traditional university essay writing.

That sentence wasn’t written by a human; it was written by artificial intelligence, ChatGPT itself.

I told the program to write an article about ChatGPT replacing university essay writing. It did what I asked, but it’s not entirely true that ChatGPT can replace it.

“I can provide assistance in generating ideas and writing essays. However, I do not aim to replace university essay writing entirely,” the program said. 

ChatGPT generates these responses based on its training process — a machine learning algorithm. None of its responses are predetermined by programmers. It generates responses using information from books, articles and websites. It also improves its responses by learning from user questions and messages.

ChatGPT doesn’t think for itself. 

It can’t access copyrighted material. The chat bot, when asked how it would avoid bias without primary source material, explained that it relied on multiple reputable sources. The program said that it is not capable of “intentionally misleading or lying” to users.

“It is important to note that the quality and accuracy of the information I provide is dependent on the quality of the sources I rely on,” ChatGPT said. “It is always a good idea to verify the information provided by any source, including me, to ensure its accuracy and reliability.”

Books that are in the public domain however, like some versions of Shakespeare’s plays and other public domain books, which might be used in a university class, are available to the AI.

In practicality, ChatGPT can write essays. However, it said that it cannot read books or other texts in the same way a human being can. ChatGPT’s essays do not go in-depth, stating themes of books generally without making any substantial arguments.

Andrew Moore, a professor of great books at St. Thomas University, said ChatGPT can’t necessarily write an essay for students. It would be plagiarism if a student handed in an essay written by someone — or something — other than themselves.

“It can churn out clear, concise, grammatically correct prose, but in terms of content, it is not very deep, not very substantive,” he said.

Even if you ask it for more detail or for quotes, Moore said, ChatGPT still can’t go in-depth. Although it is very impressive at first, Moore said the more you use it, the more questions you have about the AI’s effectiveness. 

“It’ll give you this good sort of starting point. But I have yet to see it write a good, thought-provoking essay,” he said. 

Moore added that ChatGPT’s essays are like the kind of thing you read on the back of a book. Although this may be a new tool for students, Moore said that writing is not going to go away. 

“As teachers, we’re probably going to have to do more work, talking with students about what the essay is for and why we write them,” he said. 

“It’s not just about checking to make sure you’ve read the book. It’s about giving students an opportunity to develop their ideas, to think about something in a sustained and detailed way.”

ChatGPT might be good for an email, a memo, or a paragraph about a movie night, something that would be emailed to a list of people, he said. It might take people 20 minutes to write that kind of thing but the AI could do that in two minutes. 

“We’re quickly going to start policy the norms of when it’s acceptable and when it’s not to use this. I think we’ll all be a little bit suspicious or skeptical if people are overusing this,” he said.