AI in College Writing

As the new semester begins, many faculty are again engaged in an ethical debate about the ways in which their students might use AI in their writing assignments, whether with explicit guidance and permission, or otherwise.

This past week, I was invited to join educational futurist Bryan Alexander and my colleague and collaborator Daniel Ernst as we discussed a number of ideas related to AI and the teaching of writing at the college level. It was a robust discussion, and I encourage you to view the Future Trends Forum recording here.

Over the past few months — as I have been trying to refine my own thinking on AI and writing through blogging, facilitating workshops and webinars, beginning a new book project with my colleague and co-author Kristen Hawley Turner, and reviewing the transcripts of our focus group interviews from the project Daniel and I have been working on — I have begun to summarize the ways in which my colleagues are describing their use of AI in writing instruction in the following manner.

In short, I am hearing educators talk about and seeing ways that AI can serve 1) as a thinking partner, 2) as a research assistant, and 3) as a co-writer. This is an imperfect list, of course, as the tools continue to change. Yet, as 2024 begins and the range of functions available in generative AI writing tools seems to be settling into a few categories, I share some initial thinking on them here.

AI as Thinking Partner

With the many AI tools that students can use as conversational partners (e.g., ChatGPT, Bing, Bard), I wonder how we can encourage them to engage with the AI as a thinking partner, much the same way we would during a writing conference (or encourage them to interact with peers to share ideas and give feedback). How might we encourage students not to simply ask the chatbot to write an essay or story for them, and instead to prompt it for the kinds of feedback that could further their own writing?

For instance, when prompting ChatGPT in this manner — “Given recent weather patterns, I am getting more worried about changes to our environment, and I am working on an argumentative essay on climate change. What are some questions that could help get me started as I think about specific topics to cover in my essay related to sea level change, heat waves, and forest fires?” — it provided me with a decent list of questions that could lead my writing in additional directions.

Similarly, Bard’s Copilot (which I have access to through my institution’s Microsoft license) generated some questions, though perhaps not as nuanced as ChatGPT’s. As just one example, Chat GPT generated “How has the global sea level changed over the past few decades, and what are the primary contributors to this change?” whereas Copilot asked two separate questions “What are the primary causes of sea level change?” and “What are some of the most significant sea level changes observed in the last decade?”

Even having students compare the outputs of these AI tools could be useful, looking at the depth and nuance evident in the questions, and thinking about which set of questions would lead to more substantive, engaging writing. Even if just being used to prompt thinking, encouraging students to use the AI chat tools as a way to develop new inquiry questions is one way to engage with AI as a thinking partner.

Of note, both ChatGPT and Bing provided a similar set of caveats at the end of their output, which are somewhat helpful reminders (if followed by additional instruction and coaching). Here is ChatGPT’s:

“Considering these questions can help you delve into specific aspects of each topic and provide a well-rounded perspective in your argumentative essay on climate change. Remember to back your arguments with credible sources and evidence to strengthen your case.”

ChatGPT Output

On a related note, Paul Allison has been doing a good deal of work to integrate specific GPTs for feedback and scaffolding thinking in NowComment. This is certainly a tool that is worth exploring as we help students engage in substantive dialogue around texts, images, and videos, all supported by scaffolded thinking via GPTs that are customized to specific academic tasks.

AI as Research Assistant

As tools Perplexity, Bing, and Bard continue to integrate sources into the AI output and fight many of the fears about hallucinations and misinformation that have been part of the AI conversation since the fall of 2022, I have begun to wonder what this means for students in their efforts to critically evaluate online sources. In this sense, the AI output itself is one source, as well as the additional sources that are referenced in these outputs.

For instance, in a search for “What is climate change?” via Perplexity, it yielded links to six additional sources in the first sentence, with a total of eight different sources for the article. It produced a clear, concise summary and prompted additional questions that the user could click on and explore. By comparison, a Google search of the same question (and, yes, I know that we aren’t supposed to ask Google questions, yet it is clear that many people do), provided a list of sources and a summary panel from the United Nations.

Of note, it is interesting to see that Perplexity’s sources (UN, two from NASA, World Bank, NRDC, NatGeo, Wikipedia, and BBC, in that order ) are similar to, though not exactly the same as Google’s output in the top ten hits, for me at least: UN, NASA, World Bank, NASA Climate Kids, BBC, NatGeo, US EPA, NASA, Wikipedia, and NRDC, in that order. This, of course, could lead to some great conversations about lateral reading, tracking of user data across the web and privacy, and the ways in which different tools (traditional search as compared to AI-powered search) function.

Moreover, as we begin to see AI embedded directly in word processing tools, this research process will become even more seamless. And, as described in the section below, we will also want to begin thinking about when, why, and how we ask students to engage with AI as a co-writer, relying on the research it has provided to craft our own arguments.

AI as Co-Writer

Finally, the aspect of AI in English language arts instruction that I think is still causing most of us to question both what we do, as teachers, and why we do it, is this idea that AI will take over anything from a small portion to a large degree of our students’ writing process. In addition to the initial fear of rampant, outright cheating and how to catch plagiarists, in conversations with my colleague Pearl Ratunil of Harper College, we are trying to understand more about how AI cuts to the core of who we are as teachers of writing. Teaching writing, in this sense, is deeply emotional work, as we invest time and energy into the success of individual writers, providing them with coaching and feedback. To think, feel, or actually know that they have undermined our efforts at relationship-building, let along teaching specific skills that are then outsourced to AI is, well, deeply saddening.

Yet, back to the main idea here of AI as co-writer. The tools are here, becoming more and more integrated and our student will continue to have access to and use them in their day-to-day writing tasks. I learned about another new-to-me tool the other day, Lex, and that is on my agenda to explore in the weeks ahead. Add that to the list of many tools I keep exploring like Rytr, Wordtune, Quillbot, and more. Lex claims that “With Lex’s built-in AI, the first draft process becomes a joy. No more switching back and forth between ChatGPT and Google Docs,” so that will be interesting to see.

More than simply an auto-complete, these tools do have the capability to help students explore genre and tone, adjusting messages to different audiences based on needs for style and clarity. Just as we would want students to be capable writers using other tools that they have available to them — both technical tools like spelling and grammar checks, as well as intellectual tools like mentor texts and sentence templates — we need to help them make wise, informed decisions about when, why, and how AI can help them as writers (and when to rely on their own instincts, word choice, and voice).

As Kristen Turner and I work on the book this year, I will be curious to see how some of these tools perform to help support different, specific writing skills (e.g., developing a claim or adding evidence). My sense so far is that AI can still help produce generic words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, and that it will take a skilled writer (and teacher) to help students understand what they need to revise and refine in the process of writing.

Closing Notes

In my “welcome back” email to faculty this week, I shared the following as it relates to academic integrity issues.

Having had conversations about this with a few of you last fall – and knowing that a few of you dealt with cases of potential AI dishonesty – as we begin this semester, it is worth revisiting any policies that you have in your syllabus related to academic honesty and AI. It is no surprise that I am still, generally, an advocate for AI (with some guardrails), as our own students will need to know how to use it in their professional communication, lesson planning, and in teaching their own students to use AI tools. 

In addition to the many resources on the CIS AI website, one that they have listed is from Dr. Christopher Heard of Pepperdine/Seaver College, who used Twine to create an interactive where you can create a draft of syllabus language that is then free to use and remix because it is in the public domain. This tool could be a useful start, and I would also encourage you to read recent research on the ways that AI plagiarism detection tools are, or are not, doing so well at the task, and that many are biased toward our multilingual learners, the use of AI detection is perhaps dwindling, as some universities are simply abandoning the tools altogether. If we do plan to use plagiarism detection tools at all in our classes, then we need to follow best practices in scaffolding the use of such tools and making students aware of our intentions.  

Finally, consider this student’s perspective in an op-ed for CNN, who encouraged teachers in this manner:  

“We can be taught how to make effective prompts to elicit helpful feedback, ideas and writing. Imagine the educational benefits students can gain by incorporating AI in the classroom, thoughtfully and strategically.”  

Sidhi Dhanda, September 16, 2023

As we focus more intently this semester on core teaching practices, I will be curious to see where the conversations about the use of AI intersect with our goal to prepare the next generation of teachers.  

Throughout it all — as I keep thinking about AI in the role of Thinking Partner, Research Assistant, and Co-Writer — 2024 promises to be another year dominated by the conversations around AI. In the next few weeks, I have at least three professional development/conference sessions on the topic, and I am sure that we will revisit it during our upcoming MediaEd Institute and summer workshops with the Chippewa River Writing Project, as well as the faculty learning community I am participating in at CMU.

In what ways are you rethinking the teaching of writing in 2024 with the use of generative AI writing tools?

Photo by Aman Upadhyay on Unsplash.

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Pivoting the Conversation on AI in Writing

As ChatGPT has heralded the “death of the college essay” and “the end of high school English, we could be well served to lean into the idea that we need to both rethink our writing assignments and to invite our students to “cheat” on them.

So, I am clearly coming to the conversation on AI a bit late.

As ChatGPT has heralded the “death of the college essay” and “the end of high school English” — and as we see both combative and generative approaches to the role of AI in writing instruction — I might be adding this blog post a bit behind the curve (though I was honored to be interviewed for a story about AI in writing this past week, published in Bridge Michigan).

Of course, I think that this is really the beginning of a much longer conversation that we are going to have about the role of technology and the ways in which we might approach it. So, it is not so much as I am late to the conversation, as it is that I am hoping we move it in a different direction.

Others in academia and beyond are, to be clear, already calling for this pivot, so I am not the first on this count either.

Still, I want to echo it here. Paul Fyfe, Director of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities at NCSU, describes a compelling approach in a recent quote from Inside Higher Ed:

For the past few semesters, I’ve given students assignments to “cheat” on their final papers with text-generating software. In doing so, most students learn—often to their surprise—as much about the limits of these technologies as their seemingly revolutionary potential. Some come away quite critical of AI, believing more firmly in their own voices. Others grow curious about how to adapt these tools for different goals or about professional or educational domains they could impact. Few believe they can or should push a button

Paul Fyfe, associate professor of English and director of the graduate certificate in digital humanities, North Carolina State University (cited from Inside Higher Ed)

Like Fyfe, I too lean into the idea that we need to both rethink our writing assignments and to invite our students to “cheat” on them. AI can be used for idea generation (and refinement), and it can also be used as a way for us to reconsider genre and style. For instance, I continue to be intrigued by the options offered in Rytr, in particular, as it allows us to choose:

  • Tone, including options such as “compassionate,” “thoughtful,” and “worried.”
  • “Use case” or style, including options such as “blog idea and outline,” “email,” and “call to action.”
  • The option to produce up to three variants, with differing levels of “creativity.”

The screenshot below shows the Rytr interface, and the ways that these options can be easily chosen from dropdown menus before a writer enters their keywords and was Ryter use its AI abilities to, well, “ryt” for them.

Unlike the input interface of ChatGPT and other AI writing tools (which, to their credit, allows for natural language input for “write in the style of” including pirates and the King James Bible), the interface for Rytr is prompting me to consider a variety of contextual factors.

As a writer and teacher of writing, this set of choices available in Rytr fascinates me.

Screenshot from the AI writing tool, Rytr, showing the input interface with options for "tone," "use case," "variants," and "creativity level."
Screenshot from the input interface of Rytr (January 21, 2023).

Just as the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” invites student to engage in a variety of “habits of mind” such as “curiosity” and “flexibility,” I think that that AI writing tools, too, can give us opportunities to engage our students in productive conversations and activities as they create AI output (and re-create that output through a collaborative co-authoring with the AI).

Also, I think that we need to ask some serious questions about the design of our writing assignments.

When the vast majority of writing assignments have, well, already been written about and replied to (see: any essay writing mill, ever), we need to consider what it is that really constitutes a strong writing assignment — as well as the various audiences, positions, time frames, research sources, and alternative genres (Gardner, 2011) — in order to design meaningful tasks for our students that tools like ChatGPT will be, if not unable to answer, at least unable to answer as well as our students could through their knowledge of the content, their ability to integrate meaningful citations, and their writerly creativity.

From there, I am also reminded of NWP’s “Writing Assignment Framework and Overview,” which also suggests that we must design our assignments as one component of instruction, with reflective questions that we must ask (p. 4 in PDF):

What do I want my students to learn from this assignment? For whom are they writing and for what purpose? What do I think the final product should look like? What processes will help the students? How do I teach and communicate with the students about these matters?

National Writing Project’s “Writing Assignment Framework and Overview

As we consider these questions, we might better be able to plan for the kind of instruction and modeling we may offer our students (likely using AI writing tools in the process) as well as thinking about how they might help define their own audiences, purposes, and genres. With that, we might also consider how traditional writing tasks could be coupled with multimodal components, inviting students to compose across text, image, video, and other media in order to demonstrate competency in a variety of ways.

If we continue to explore these options in our assignment design — and welcome students to work with us to choose elements of their writing tasks — it is likely that they will develop the kinds of intentional, deliberate stance toward their own work as writers.

They can, as the Framework implies, “approach learning from an active stance” (p. 4) and “be well positioned to meet the writing challenges in the full spectrum of academic courses and later in their careers” (p. 2). As the oft-mentioned idea in education goes, we need to prepare our students for jobs that have not been invented yet, and AI writing tools are likely to play a part in their work.

All that said, I don’t know that I have answers.

Yet, I hope we continue to ask questions, and will do so again soon. To that end, I welcome you to join me and my colleague Dan Lawson for a workshop on this topic, described in the paragraphs below.

Since its launch in late November of 2022, ChatGPT has brought an already simmering debate about the use of AI in writing to the public’s attention. Now, as school districts and higher education institutions are deciding what to do with next steps, as writing teachers, we wonder: how can educators, across grades levels and disciplines, explore the use of AI writing in their classrooms as a tool for idea generation, rhetorical analysis, and, perhaps, as a “co-authoring” tool? Moreover, how do we adapt our assignments and instruction to help students bring a critical perspective to their use of AI writing tools? 

As I try to explore this a bit more, please join Dan Lawson and me on Thursday, February 2nd from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. for a hyflex workshop (in person at CMU or online via WebEx) on revising writing assignments to better facilitate authentic learning goals. Please bring an assignment sheet for a current writing assignment. We will use AI writing applications to consider how best to revise those assignments and adapt our instruction for this changing context.

Register here

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Digital Diligence Webinar Recording

This past week, I was honored to present “Digital Diligence” as the third in a series of webinars in this year’s Medialogue on Propaganda Project. Learn about “digital diligence”—an alert, intentional stance that helps both teachers and students use technology productively, ethically, and responsibly.

GDoc Handout (“View Only”)

This past week, I was honored to present “Digital Diligence” as the third in a series of webinars in this year’s Medialogue on Propaganda Project, sponsored by the Media Education Lab (University of Rhode Island, USA), the Media Education and Educational Technology Lab (University of Würzburg, Germany), U.S. Embassy Berlin, Public Affairs Section (PAS), and Media Literacy Now.

In this webinar, learn about “digital diligence”—an alert, intentional stance that helps both teachers and students use technology productively, ethically, and responsibly. Join us for a discussion on how to build adolescents’ skills for protecting online privacy, minimizing digital distraction, breaking through “filter bubbles,” fostering civil conversations, evaluating the information on the Internet, creating meaningful digital writing, and deeply engaging with multimedia texts.

Find out more about our Medialogue on Propaganda Project and join our learning community.

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Using Digital Texts to Deepen Understanding

Join Brandon Abdon (@BrandonAbdon), Alice Wu, Andy Schoenborn (@aschoenborn), and Troy Hicks (@hickstro) as we explore ways to give students a choice in topic and approach, all as they develop their digital writing skill. Watch the Live Stream Here on Wednesday, November 3, 2021 from 7:30 to 9:00 PM Eastern

Now more than ever, students need hope, guidance, and accessible avenues to attain digital equity. Discussing how to use “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” from The New York Times as a multimedia mentor text, join Brandon Abdon (@BrandonAbdon), Alice Wu, Andy Schoenborn (@aschoenborn), and Troy Hicks (@hickstro) as we explore ways to give students a choice in topic and approach, all as they develop their digital writing skills. We invite you to join us to see what students can achieve.

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Webinar Archive: Literacy in a Time of Rapid Change – Strategies & Resources for Virtual Learning

Here is an archived recording of our Wednesday, March 25, 2020 webinar on EdWeb, “Literacy in a Time of Rapid Change: Strategies and Resources for Virtual Learning,” as well as the GDoc handout from the session.

We are now in the midst of a “new normal,” and questions about what virtual instruction will look like — in our own classrooms and across the globe — abound. Join literacy experts, authors, and experienced virtual educators, Dr. Troy Hicks and Shaelynn Farnsworth, as they discuss resources and strategies to best support remote teaching and learning.

In this edWebinar, explore ways to virtually teach and engage students in literacy learning by sharing curricular content, edtech tools, resources, communities, and tips to get you thinking critically and creatively in this time of crisis. As we are working to meet the needs of all students virtually, we’ll also be mindful of issues related to equity, accessibility, and student populations with special needs.

We can do this together. Please watch the conversation.

This recorded edWebinar will be of interest to kindergarten through higher education teachers, librarians, school and district leaders, curriculum and instruction, TOSAs and coaches, assistant superintendents, and tech directors.

Troy HicksAbout the Presenters

Dr. Troy Hicks is Professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University (CMU). He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. In 2011, he was honored with CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in research and creative activity, in 2014 he received the Conference on English Education’s Richard A. Meade Award for scholarship in English Education, and, in 2018, he received the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award. An ISTE Certified Educator, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

Shaelynn FarnsworthShaelynn Farnsworth is a coach, consultant, and educator for Web20Classroom. She is a leader in the convergence between literacy and technology. As a high school teacher, she redefined her English classroom as not only a place to learn about literature but also explore how technology is shaping the future of communications. She continues this exploration in her role as a consultant focusing on technology, literacy, differentiation, and systemic change. Shaelynn is a staff developer, literacy coach, and supports districts in the implementation of initiatives. She is a MIEExpert, Google Certified Innovator, Apple Teacher, and has training in Project-Based Learning from the Buck Institute, Visible Learning with Hattie, Instructional Coaching, and K-12 Literacy Best Practices.

Teaching and Learning (Digital) Literacy in Higher Education

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This morning, I am honored to present for the College Reading Educators during one of their session at the New York State Reading Association’s annual conference. My talk will focus on the idea that, without question, learning continues to change in the twenty-first century. Higher education faculty have always valued the teaching of reading, writing, and thinking — and see that our very notion of what it means to be literate is evolving. How, then, do we enhance and extend traditional literacy practices in this digital age? This brief talk will provide some background on Dr. Hicks’ work as a teacher of digital writing, connected reading, and critical thinking for both undergraduate and graduate students, many of them pre- and in-service teachers, at Central Michigan University. Links from the presentation are embedded in the Google Slides and include the following:


Tools for Connected Reading, Digital Writing, and Disciplinary Thinking

Photo by Matthew Kwong on Unsplash

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Archived Webinar: “Multimodal Composition: Beyond Boring Nonfiction”

Earlier this summer, I was invited to collaborate with colleagues from the organization who runs Wonderopolis, the National Center for Families Learning, to co-lead a webinar with their Developmental Editor, Wendee Mullikin.

We discuss ways in which teachers can use Wonderopolis as engaging texts for their readers, pivoting into ways that these “wonders” can then become mentor texts for students as digital writers. To consider more of my thinking on this, please review my post from earlier this year for the Educator Collaborative blog, “From Wonder to Writing: Invite Students Into Inquiry Through Online Articles.”

The Vimeo link is now live – enjoy!

[vimeo 349967861 w=640 h=360]

Wonderopolis: Multimodal Composition–Beyond Boring Nonfiction from NCFL on Vimeo.

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Digital Diligence (SIDL 2019 Keynote)

For the fourth consecutive summer, I am honored to present the Thursday morning keynote at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. Over the past year, I have become increasingly concerned about dire headlines that move beyond the “kids these days” kinds of arguments we have heard in the past to a deeper, more disconcerting tone that suggests our brains, as well as our culture, are disintegrating. Thus, for my next book project, I am working on a new idea, one that I hope will catch hold amongst educators and parents: digital diligence.

From my work over the years on digital writing and connected reading, and from two decades of teaching, I feel that we need to change the tone of the conversation about educational technology. As we look at 1:1 and BYOD programs, as we consider the hundreds of possible tech tools we could use to scaffold learning and support creativity, why is it that we seem to keep moving back to the most reductive, mundane uses of tech? In our conversations about digital access, usage, and, even “addiction,” are we (educators, parents, medical and mental health professionals, and the media) asking the right questions? Moreover, are we modeling and mentoring tech use for our children and students, or simply managing it?

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Thus, today, we will engage in two activities that, I hope, move us toward digital diligence. By this, I define digital diligence as an intentional and alert stance that individuals employ when using technology (apps, websites, software, and devices) for connected reading and digital writing, characterized by empathy, purpose, and persistence. In particular, we will take a digitally diligent stance to better understand how knowledge is created within the Wikipedia community and explore opportunities for civil dialogue using social media.

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Teaching, Learning, Living: Using Writing to Nurture Personal and Professional Growth

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Links from Presentation

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Can I Cite That – Drew University (October 25, 2018)

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Photo by Alex Litvin on Unsplash