Using online chatbots during a masters

There is a lot of interest at the moment in online chatbots. Are they smart time savers or do they give unfair advantage to students? Should they be banned in universities? Whatever the rights and wrongs of the technology there are important issues about using online chatbots during a masters.

What are online chatbots?

An online chatbot is a very useful website feature. It is a simple rule-based tool and it provides a set of predetermined answers to typical questions. They offer live interaction with a user via a pop-up, and they are designed to help customers with their enquiries. Nowadays they use sophisticated AI to mimic the style of a support person.

What is the link between a chatbot and writing essays?

Until recently most of these chatbot services have been primitive, and only capable of providing limited answers to basic questions. Now they can do a lot more.

At the same time, online services have existed to provide essay answers for a fee. These so-called ‘essay farms’ targeted students needing help with a subject or looking to get unfair advantage, or even a place at university. As a result, universities use strict controls to filter out these submissions, and any essays provided in this way are rejected.

Artificial Intelligence is the way forward

The latest generation of AI services has reached a high level of sophistication. This has led to a convergence of AI with the process of essay writing. ChatGPT is the new AI chatbot that is causing a stir, designed by US tech company OpenAI.

AI software now exists that can mimic an academic writing style. As a result it is much harder to tell the difference between an essay written using artificial intelligence and a human. Essays written by the tool are very sophisticated and hard to spot. This is leading universities to rethink their teaching and assessment methods with questions being raised around AI and plagiarism.

The challenge for universities is to adapt to this new technology, and work out at the very least how to guard against students gaining unfair advantage by using online chatbots during a masters.

How do universities prevent cheating?

Masters students spend a lot of their study time completing written assignments of one kind or another. Equally important is knowing how to use research methods.

Plagiarism has been present on the university campus for many years. When academic study resources moved online, it soon became apparent that a student might cheat the system. In effect they could copy and paste large chunks of published text and try to submit it as their own original work.

The problem of plagiarism is passing off a piece of research as your own. For the most part it’s the difference between adapting parts of a published text whilst referencing correctly, and lifting it wholesale and claiming to have written it. The latter example is outright cheating.

Traditionally, academic staff spot a repurposed article or passage. New tools help keep up with demand and streamline grading to improve student outcomes. There are a number of online software applications that check for originality, such as Grammarly.

The most widely used tool to spot plagiarism in UK universities is Turnitin. In reality almost every student assessment is checked by Turnitin through a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment). The Turnitin app is included in the process of submission. As a result all assessed work is checked for originality. In the long run getting the right assessment makes the difference between a top grade and an average one.

Changes in assessment to detect AI written Content

Using online chatbots during a masters is becoming harder to weed out. Universities are adjusting their assessment methods to counter the threat. Some subjects will be reverting to skills-based assessment as part of final coursework, with the masters essay removed from the possible assessment options.

Another method is to require students to write reflective assignments closely based on the module themes. This change does not suit every programme. Some students require additional support with assignments, and as a result a wholesale switch away from essays to timed exams would not be welcomed.

Recognising the challenge of AI generated Content

In conclusion we can agree Artificial Intelligence tools are here to stay, and universities will find imaginative ways to adapt to their use. Perhaps the way to look at this is to regard online chatbots as the next step up from spelling or grammar checkers.

We happily let Alexa govern our choices in the home – something unthinkable only a few years ago.

In the long run using online chatbots during a masters is missing out on the purpose of competing a degree. While taking the easy option looks attractive ultimately you will be cheating yourself.

Its important to realise that reaching an original conclusion based upon the research of a number of different sources is much more satisfying in the long run.

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