Can AI elevate the way we teach English in the classroom?

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The growing presence of AI opens up a unique opportunity for teachers — a chance to reevaluate and reimagine the English classroom.

Instructions: Create a character design for a literary theory of your choice. The illustration must include at least three details related to the corresponding literary theory. You may draw traditionally on paper or use any digital software to aid you in drawing.

It was designed to be a simple and playful task at the end of a lengthy essay-filled quiz — a palate cleanser from all of the writing. In my five years of teaching English at progressive high schools, I’ve recognized the importance of finding alternative ways to measure understanding. Not all 10th graders are linguistically-inclined, and literary criticism is already daunting enough as it is. With this assessment, the visual learners get the opportunity to excel by doing what they do best.

In fact, the quiz actually produced quite a number of out of the box illustrations. New Historicism, which views texts as products of their time, appears as a humanoid figure embellished with steampunk elements. Its head is replaced by a bronze, ticking clock accentuating the role of historical milieu in this approach. Marxism takes the form of a circus ringmaster, price tags still attached to his expensive garments. The quality of the submissions ranged from earnest scribbles on notebook paper to anime-inspired drawings done on a tablet.

But near the end of 2022, I received a submission that stood out from the rest. It was a black and white portrait of a spectacled, old, Caucasian man made to represent Structuralism. But unlike the rest that were animated and graphic, this one was uncanny. It seemed photorealistic yet could still pass off as an illustration. And while some students are perfectly capable of drawing at that level, I knew that this student couldn’t.

It was done using a text-to-image generator called Midjourney. I consulted with the student and found out that they had used artificial intelligence (AI) for their submission. When I asked why they submitted work that wasn’t theirs, they responded with, “I didn’t know that wasn’t allowed.”

I had read the articles, seen the tweets, and had conversations with colleagues about AI making its way into the English classroom. But I didn’t think it would happen that soon. My assessments and classroom policies were still unequipped for that kind of disruption. As a result, I just asked the student to re-do the assignment with their own illustrations.

Academic integrity in the time of AI

Senior high school English teacher Karen Collins Ramos spent her holiday break in conversation with ChatGPT. When the early demo of the AI-powered language model was released in November 2022, Ramos immediately started testing its capabilities and limits — anticipating that her students in Practical Research would use the tool. Her hunch was eventually proven true. “When I saw student work that was suspiciously well-written and quite soulless, I knew it was only the beginning,” Ramos says.

ChatGPT brought the world a step closer to the science fiction that only existed in the media. Everyone was excited. A computer had finally trained itself on enough data sets that it could converse as if it were a human being. But just like in science fiction, this kind of technology calls for some caution and care. Ramos heeds a warning on students’ unsupervised use of this shiny, new toy. “You shouldn’t use a tool you don’t understand; much like using a knife without much expertise, you can end up hurting yourself or someone else.“

Academic institutions landed on the receiving end of this metaphorical knife. From summarizing the plot of Homer’s “Iliad” to analyzing the narrative of Penelope through a feminist framework, AI can accomplish these tasks assigned in the English classroom. Students simply need to feed ChatGPT with the right prompt and they can call it a day. No need to read the text or even the CliffsNotes version of it. A computer can now do all of that.

“When I saw student work that was suspiciously well-written and quite soulless, I knew it was only the beginning,” Ramos says.

What ChatGPT and its plethora of iterations unlocked is a new form of academic dishonesty. Plagiarism is no longer a simple act of copying and pasting, an easily quantifiable violation. These AI-generated essays can pass off as submissions of actual students making it a pain for teachers to verify. And to twist the knife in deeper, the generator can even be prompted to mimic the tone and language of an average student.

While the concern of plagiarism looms large, the influence of AI on writing extends far beyond this specter. For example, Grammarly, with its AI-powered extension, can provide feedback on readability and correct language use as you write sentences down. Even ChatGPT can take care of those simple yet time-consuming tasks we all dread like crafting emails and letters. Personally, I use AI as a superpowered thesaurus using tools like ChatGPT and to diversify my word choice and sentence construction.

This is what Dr. Kristine Marie Reynaldo, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, attempts to operationalize in her classes. In the webinar AI and The Writing Classroom hosted by the Department of English and Comparative Literature of her university, Reynaldo provides a walkthrough of her updated syllabus.

Here, she lists examples of the acceptable use of AI text generators (AITG). The fair use clauses range from brainstorming for ideas and prompts to enhancing the language of the essay. In addition to the acceptable use policies, Reynaldo’s syllabus enumerates the instances wherein AI use counts as academic dishonesty. These provisions include “Submitting essays that are substantially written by AITGs” and “Prompting an AITG to answer examination/exercise questions and (mis)representing its answers as your own,” among others. But what makes all of these provisions concrete and final is the document that Reynaldo asks her students to sign.

The foundation of responsible AI use ultimately lies in open communication. For every essay they submit, Reynaldo’s students have to accomplish a Transparency Declaration form. The document includes the fair use clauses in the syllabus and asks the students to mark which were used for their essay. But most importantly, this process prompts the students to reflect on how AI improved their writing.

Rather than something to fear and avoid, Reynaldo’s approach offers a new perspective on AI, one that emphasizes its potential as a tool for better writing. Think of it as a calculator, but instead of dealing with numbers and functions, it’s for syntax and semantics.

Teaching in a constant state of paranoia and distrust can’t be healthy for educators as well. As a case in point, feeding submissions into an AI detector is a lot of unnecessary, additional work. The classroom doesn’t need to become a prison. By establishing clear policies and parameters on AI use, students are held accountable. They gain agency and play a role in building trust within the classroom. Academic integrity doesn’t have to be at risk when it’s viewed as a two-way street.

Crafting AI-integrated assessments

When provided with the task of creating an annotated bibliography, ChatGPT will produce an extensive list with the appropriate citations to match. On the surface, it looks like a perfect score waiting to happen. But more often than not, the content would be incorrect. Some citations would have the wrong author attributed to them. Others would even mention nonexistent sources.

ChatGPT is transparent about these limitations. They even list them as a disclaimer at the start of every chat thread: “May occasionally generate incorrect information. May occasionally produce harmful instructions or biased content. Limited knowledge of world and events after 2021.” This can be attributed to its nature as a language model trained on data sets, and data sets alone. The software is still incapable of reasoning and complex argumentation. At the same time, image generators like DALL-E and Midjourney are also known for producing nightmare-inducing images of people with extra appendages and way too many teeth. AI is still far from perfect, but it’s also from this gap that the English classroom can adapt and grow.

In 1956, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom devised a way to categorize learning outcomes. Often illustrated as a pyramid with a tiered structure, Bloom’s Taxonomy frames learning as a hierarchy with levels arranged according to cognitive complexity. The higher on the pyramid, the more thinking involved. Basic skills like memorizing and summarizing are found in lower levels, while skills that involve critical thinking or generating new output are placed higher. The integration of AI in the English classroom allows educators to target these higher order thinking skills.

One example would be to have the students collaborate with an AI text generator for an argumentative essay. They would then be tasked to spot the essay’s logical fallacies and circular arguments. This could even be pushed further by having students rewrite the entire essay. Here, analysis can be substituted for critique and revision — skills that are placed higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Moreover, this could also serve as a way for the students to develop a critical eye when using these AI tools.

"This growing presence of AI also opens up a unique opportunity for teachers — a chance to reevaluate and reimagine the system."

This growing presence of AI also opens up a unique opportunity for teachers — a chance to reevaluate and reimagine the system. If a quiz can easily be answered by a machine, is it a good measure for understanding to begin with?

Over the years, the English classroom has placed a premium on the final product: Write a two-page research paper, compile an annotated bibliography, analyze a text by discussing its literary devices. The goal is always the output. But with computers now able to produce clear and coherent compositions in seconds, it might be time to shift focus. “Educators must go back to the ‘why,’” says Ramos.

Why did you use these claims to support your argument? Why did you organize your ideas in this manner? Why did you choose this tone and language for your paper? In order to train critical readers and writers, educators need to develop assessments that monitor student progress from start to finish. What gets written is important, but the writing matters just as much, if not more so.

The future of the English classroom

And while blocking ChatGPT from the school network may be an easier approach, it could end up doing more harm than good. If the past few months have been indicative of anything, it’s that AI is not going anywhere. The technology will continue to develop and its integration will be inevitable. Prohibiting students from learning how to navigate these tools will widen the country’s digital divide and leave students unprepared for an AI-powered future. Knives are definitely dangerous, but they can be pretty helpful as well.

In the same webinar, Dr. Florianne Jimenez brings this discussion closer to home. The assistant professor and co-director of the Writing Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston describes ChatGPT’s writing as “boring, bland, and mediocre,” even comparing it to eating plain oatmeal. As a product of the West, the AI-powered language model’s primary configuration is to generate texts using standardized English. Its writing is always going to sound the same, unless prompted otherwise.

This lays the groundwork for the future of the English classroom in the Philippines. As more and more industries integrate AI into their systems, the country is at risk of having a workforce that writes with as much flavor as plain oatmeal. People who do not have access to standardized English education will also be left at a bigger disadvantage. “I argue that our task in this new world is not to increase pressure on ourselves to continue to standardize our students’ English and writing,” says Jimenez. Instead, educators need to reevaluate the purpose of the classroom and transform it into a space that celebrates linguistic diversity.

The future will not be defined by artificial intelligence alone. A stronger sense of accountability and critical thinking will play more significant roles as the English classroom continues to evolve. As for my classes, I’ll be doing them differently from now on. Starting with a fresh set of instructions, clearer parameters, and a new set of learning goals.

Instructions: Create a character design for a literary theory of your choice. The illustration must include at least three details related to the corresponding literary theory. Afterwards, write a 100-word explanation connecting the visual elements to the characteristics of your chosen literary theory. You may draw traditionally or use any digital software to help you draw. Please specify if an AI tool has been used and provide the keywords used to generate the image.