The emergence of ChatGPT provoked widespread concern that the AI chatbot is the ultimate tool for students cheating on homework, since it can answer just about any question in paragraph form.
As companies race to come out with tools they claim can detect when prose was written by a bot, some are wondering whether a previous generation of homework-help tools might soon be rendered obsolete.
The homework-help business — led by giants like Chegg and Course Hero — has long been both profitable and controversial. The popularity of Chegg’s subscription service even became a verb: “Chegging.” It’s a form of question and answer business, which allows students to look up answers, a service that some believe plays to students’ worst instincts. (Need answers to homework — or a test? Chegg it.) Though, the company denies that its services are meant to allow cheating. The cost of the subscription service currently starts at $15.95 per month, according to the site.
Some instructors have opposed companies like Chegg and Course Hero, as trying to get content related to the courses they teach removed can cause a headache. The chatbots represent a new headache, for teachers and possibly also for homework-help companies.
That whole business could be threatened by free tools like ChatGPT, argues Derek Newton, who runs The Cheat Sheet, a newsletter that covers academic dishonesty.
For Newton, the primary motivation of a student using homework-help services is laziness or a lack of preparedness. And so having a free alternative that can give answers to questions — like ChatGPT — could shrink the number of students who are willing to pay, even if the answers are slightly worse or riskier, either because there’s a chance of getting caught by one of those AI detectors or of the information just being wrong. (In their current form, AI chatbots are prone to giving incorrect information.)
Bad for Business?
It’s not just homework-help. Even online tutoring companies like Tutor.com may see a decline in business thanks to the arrival of algorithm-generated writing, says edtech columnist Phill Hill.
Why? It’s disruptive: The danger — in addition to the possibility noted by Newton, that students will stop paying for these services — is that startups will develop specialized services, Hill argues.
But Chegg says it isn’t worried: “We do not expect ChatGPT to materially impact our business,” a Chegg spokesperson said in an email to EdSurge.
The company already uses an older version of ChatGPT’s technology, GPT-2, to support students in their writing products with grammar, paraphrasing and sentence structure, said Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig in a statement. “We also use it to increase speed and quality, while reducing the costs of content development,” he added.
Not everyone is satisfied that AI will be a good thing for the company and others in the sector, however.
“I think that’s a naively optimistic take,” Hill says of the notion that AI will help rather than hurt Chegg. “[But] investors didn’t really press hard on the subject the way I would have expected.” That may simply be because of how new this all is, he says.
Others think Chegg may deserve more credit.
Chegg might actually become a lucrative customer for ChatGPT, says Matt Tower, an education industry analyst who writes a newsletter about edtech.
These AI tools are probability models, and so they don’t supply the correct answer to questions but the highest probability answer to a question, Tower says. For a student using it for answers, this introduces a risk that the information isn’t correct. Being able to refine those answers is an area where Chegg theoretically has a strong advantage, Tower adds.
What might that look like for students? In the future, getting answers to tests may look less like typing a question in a search bar and more like talking with a chatbot, which can use personalized cues to tailor answers specifically to students, Tower predicts. It’s the difference between getting a generic answer to a question and getting an answer to the question based on the fact the algorithm knows you’re in a specific course. But the specific way that develops will depend on companies like Chegg and how they adjust to the shifting nature of homework help, he notes.
Whether that’s a radical shift for students is also unclear. For Newton, of The Cheat Sheet, the underlying motivation of students hasn’t changed, only the form that it’s taking. It means that what’s at stake is not whether students are being dishonest, but how: “People are now using ChatGPT that they weren’t six months ago, because it didn’t exist,” Newton says. “And so, they’re using Chegg less. But they’re still cheating.”