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It May Be Time to Return to Oral Examinations in School to Counteract AI

Most people by this point have at least some idea of what Artificial Intelligence (AI) is, even if they don’t quite know what to make of it.

Not to sound like a Neanderthal who fears progress – like those who said telephones and television were ‘works of the Devil’ when those devices first launched – but AI, to the extent that students use it, does far more harm than good.

An AI ‘chatbot’ customer service representative who answers consumers’ questions online is harmless enough. Type in “how can I add minutes to my plan?” and the bot will provide a canned answer in seconds. That’s not revolutionary; it’s just another version of a Google search. But AI in school is quite a threat to the concept of learning. Here’s why:

Students vary in terms of the goals they set for themselves: some are determined to earn straight A’s, others are simply satisfied with just passing, and others yet have goals somewhere in between. But all three types of students have one thing in common: by overwhelming numbers, they want to achieve their goals by expending as little effort as possible. Heck, if they could enter an ‘education lottery’ where the lucky winner is handed a degree or diploma without doing any work, they’d do it in a heartbeat. (I don’t have empirical evidence to support this, I just know. I’ve been a student since the early 70s and an educator since the late 80s; it’s now almost 2024 and I haven’t stopped being either one.)

In those pre-Internet 70s, a grade-schooler told his older cousin he’d been assigned his first-ever book report. The cousin advised: “go to the library, find five books on that subject, copy the front and back inside covers, and that’s your report.”

Savvy teachers can easily spot high-quality writing as obviously plagiarized because it far exceeds the scope of their students’ abilities. But lazy teachers can’t, and some won’t; it takes less effort to play dumb and look the other way.

Once the Internet became universally available, plagiarism soared to new heights. No need to trek to the library anymore to search for interior book covers to copy longhand, with a well-placed web search and a couple of copy-and-paste clicks, entire papers can be written in minutes!

Ah, but for every action, there is a reaction, and web-based plagiarism is no exception.

Nowadays, educational institutions usually require students to upload papers that pass through services such as Turnitin, which scours the Internet for any evidence that paragraphs, sentences, or even phrases ever appeared on it. Sure, the words ‘George Washington’ have turned up millions of times, so Turnitin won’t bother with that. But if the exact text: “George Washington is as revered today for his leadership as he was by his peers during the Revolution, and as admired as he was – albeit begrudgingly – by his British counterparts” shows up, then it’s gotcha!

But here’s why AI is particularly harmful: it whips up a paper in even less time than creating a stew out of a handful of Internet search results, and AI is quite original, so Turnitin can’t do very much about it. For example: just a minute ago, I asked AI “What is Reaganomics?” Here’s the answer it provided, within seconds:
“Reaganomics refers to the economic policies and principles implemented by the United States President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. It is a blend of supply-side economics, deregulation, and tax cuts aimed at stimulating economic growth and reducing inflation.

“The central idea of Reaganomics was to lower taxes, particularly for high-income individuals and corporations, in the belief that it would incentivize investment, business expansion, and job creation. This concept is often referred to as ‘trickle-down economics’ or the belief that benefits to the wealthy will ultimately benefit everyone in society.”

And those are just the first two paragraphs.

Clever students will ‘dumb-down’ the writing to make it seem more authentic.

Some school administrators have waved the white flag, admitting that AI is here to stay, and deluding themselves that students will use it responsibly as a writing tool to help them write better papers, rather than have AI do the entire assignment for them. Those are the types of folks who also believe countries like Iran and China play by the rules and terrorists honor peace treaties.

Interestingly, many fail to recognize that AI also makes up information completely out of thin air. For instance, I asked AI how many times Gloria’s ex-husband Bob appeared on ‘All in the Family’, to which it responded: 10 times. I asked again, and it answered that Bob, “played by Vincent Gardenia,” appeared in 32 episodes. Spoiler alert: the character Gloria, played by Sally Struthers, didn’t have an ex-husband, let alone one named Bob. Gardenia, almost 30 years older than Struthers, did appear on the show, as neighbor Frank Lorenzo.

Nonetheless, students can figure out a way to overcome these glitches and fool their instructors. There goes learning.

My solution is to return to oral exams: require students to recite information verbally to prove they learned it. You know, like in the old days, when people actually received a bona fide education.

Good luck, though, trying to sell that idea to school districts – which don’t want to see federal and state dollars dwindle as their students suddenly underperform – or to colleges, which don’t want the government to stop guaranteeing student loans that fund their golden goose of astronomically overpriced tuition because the failure rate suddenly skyrockets.

Unfortunately, there’s a better chance of Bob magically surfacing on All in the Family reruns.

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