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AI cheating is destroying higher education; here's how to fight it

Generative AI is the cheapest, easiest way to cheat ever invented, and the vast majority of students are using it. In a recent survey of 1,000 college-age students, more than 89 percent of respondents said that ChatGPT has helped them complete a homework assignment.  

AI tools are readily available, and if students want to learn how to defeat so-called “AI detectors” all they need to do is visit familiar sites like Reddit or YouTube, where they’ll find thriving communities dedicated to using AI for academic work without getting caught.

What can schools and universities do? Right now, most school administrators are allowing teachers to individually decide how they’ll allow their students to use generative AI. To an extent, that’s good, because it allows educators to create their own standards based on their instruction and the platforms they’re using. However, in my discussions with educators around the country, I’ve found that most of them simply don’t know enough about AI tools to create those policies.

Rather than try to stay ahead of their students in a sort of technological arms race, I believe educators should redefine cheating, just as they did when students started using calculators or smartphones. In the case of generative AI, the basic question is, “What input should be coming from the human, and what inputs can come from the AI in order to accomplish the goal of the assignment?” Once educators have answered this question, they can set clear expectations for their students.

Ultimately, what constitutes appropriate use of AI in the world beyond the classroom will be defined by society and the workforce. To prepare students for that world, educators have to strike a balance between banning generative AI and allowing students to overuse it and therefore never develop the skills they need to succeed in their careers and lives.

I’ve heard of some educators whose knee-jerk reaction to students’ use of AI was to give only oral or pen-and-paper exams, but this simply isn’t sustainable—primarily because it creates an insurmountable amount of work for teachers themselves. There are, however, several practical ways that instructors can redefine cheating, while at the same time guiding students to develop the skills they’ll need in the workforce.

First, they must decide what is worth teaching. As the tech tools available to students change, education should change as well. Take cursive writing, for example. It looks nice, but is it necessary, particularly in the age of computers? Just as many schools no longer teach cursive, educators in a variety of disciplines may determine that elements previously included in their curriculum are no longer a valuable use of students’ time and effort, and choose to focus on teaching durable skills such as critical thinking and collaboration.

Second, they must document students’ AI use and bring it to the surface. There are a number of platforms that, when used effectively, can give instructors a clear view of how students are using available AI tools. Documenting AI use gives faculty insights into how students are using those tools, and bringing that use to light enables faculty to provide feedback and teach proper use. The combination, done in real-time, allows educators to offer feedback during the research and writing process, not just when a student turns in a final assignment.

Finally, educators must embrace project-based learning. When learning happens in the process, instructors can grade not just the final product, but the work a student does along the way. Effective project-based learning educators provide feedback from the very beginning of the project. With this guidance, students are much more likely to produce a final product that reflects their knowledge and skills.

As I talk to educators around the country about how they’re adapting to generative AI, I’ve heard some faculty members speak against using ChatGPT to help students with research and writing because they believe that “struggle leads to learning.” I don’t disagree. But that said, as with cursive writing, if the struggle doesn’t help students develop skills they need for today’s world, why make them go through it?

Wilson Tsu founded PowerNotes in 2016 based on his experience with digital research and writing in law and business school while in Northwestern University’s joint JD/MBA program. He has also practiced law at Kirkland & Ellis and was an engineer for several years at IBM.

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