Focused on Academic Integrity: Turnitin’s CEO’s Optimism for AI Writing Tools in Schools

The leader discusses educational obstacles and possibilities present in this major digital transformation.

Published on Jun 29, 2023

“Since joining the academic integrity space in 2009 as Turnitin’s CEO, I’ve witnessed many transitions in the education landscape,” said Chris Caren. “But none quite as transformative as the challenges and opportunities that AI writing presents.” 

Caren leads the charge at Turnitin, a provider of internet-based integrity and assessment solutions for more than 16,000 academic institutions and 40 million students around the world. He and his team are acutely aware of the challenges that educators face in the recent wake of AI writing tool’s worldwide wave. 

“We are thinking and learning about how students will use AI writing tools,” he said. “On the surface, it’s easy to assume that students will use these technologies to cheat. However, we don’t believe that’s the whole story, so we are taking a more nuanced, long-term view.”

Turnitin’s CEO Chris Caren
Turnitin’s CEO Chris Caren

Right now, cheating is the elephant in the classroom. It will always be a topic worth addressing in academia — especially now. But Caren is also advocating for teachers, parents, administrators and everyone else in education to look past this near-term hurdle. He hopes the sentiment can shift toward the present and future benefits this technology affords both students and educators. 

Overall, he’s optimistic that this technology will be used for good in the classroom, there will just be an adjustment period the same way educators had to adapt to the graphing calculator and computers being used in class. AI writing tools are merely another set of tools to adapt to — not ones to shun. 

Caren shared more of his thoughts around the challenges and big opportunities for the use of AI writing tools in academic settings. Let’s dive into his insights below. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges AI writing tools face in more widespread adoption in education? 

With every new wave of technology, there are inherent challenges for the education sector and AI is no different. In my mind, the key barriers to adoption will be multifaceted. 

First, we know that educators are already immensely busy managing their academic calendars. We’ve heard from them firsthand; after having adopted virtual/hybrid classroom models during the pandemic, there are varying degrees of appetite for contending with new technologies again, like AI writing tools. 

Second, we’ve learned that there are diverse perceptions on whether AI writing should be allowed in academic work or not. This most recent wave of AI writing tools marks a clear point of no return. However, the education sector as a whole must confront the reality that AI is now firmly part of the educational landscape. Over time, I believe there will be a mix of writing assignments - some where AI support is welcomed, and others that are solely the work of the student.

Finally, there’s so much that we’re still discovering about these AI technologies in terms of their full capabilities in classrooms. Educators are experimenting with this tech themselves. They’re quickly becoming aware of the spectrum of its advantages and disadvantages as they seek to leverage the technology to actively support and enable learning in the classroom. 

What do you see as the major areas of opportunity for AI writing tools in schools or the education space overall? 

AI can be a force for good in education when the tools are accessed equitably, transparently and skillfully. And there are many current and evolving use cases for AI writing tools when considering the positive implications of these tools. 

  • We've heard from instructors that AI writing tools  can be great for students with learning disabilities or for whom English is not their first language. Educators have also said they intend to use these tools to help students develop digital literacy skills.
  • AI writing tools have the potential to allow students to give feedback, rather than always being on the receiving end of it. This gives students new perspectives on how to evaluate their own writing.
  • For more advanced writers, AI writing tools can remove much of the repetitive mechanics of writing. It can allow seasoned writers to focus on the bigger picture and higher-level thinking.
  • For teachers, these large language models (LLMs) have the potential to massively scale summarization and feedback. They will be able to spend more time giving feedback on high-level concepts and possibly even improve grading consistency and fairness.
  • On the flipside, the reasoning and writing ability of these technologies render many simpler prompts and questions obsolete. This means we can use LLMs to craft novel prompts, which could even be customized  to the needs of individual students.
  • AI can inform students on how to improve their writing skills. For example, students can upload their work and ask the AI to give them feedback on how to improve it. 
  • And importantly - most educators want to know when and how AI has been used in student work. Proper attribution will be key.

What are you optimistic about in terms of how this technology will positively impact students and teachers?

For students, we see this as an opportunity for them to openly raise the topic of AI in their classrooms with their educators. They should seek to understand their educators’ perspectives on the best way to use these technologies transparently and responsibly and, most importantly, recognize the parameters around acceptable use. 

More broadly speaking, I think learning about AI should excite students. Today’s students will be walking into a workforce where AI is part of the DNA of how work gets done, and I say that as the father of four daughters ranging from high school to early college. They need to prepare for the future of work, where they’ll navigate the additional value that humans can contribute within this evolving, technology-assisted landscape.

For educators, the rise of AI writing tools presents a clear and immediate opportunity to revisit academic integrity practices and policies. Educators are already beginning to scrutinize their assessment formats and prompts for what could be easily reproduced via AI writing. That includes introducing new or lesser known assessment formats like verbal assessments, reviewing “work in progress” drafts and incorporating more personalized storytelling components. No doubt educators will tap into new levels of ingenuity in their teaching practices and assessment methods, as they always have.  

Educators across the country are already adapting their teaching strategies to account for generative AI. According to The New York Times, professors at George Washington University, Rutgers University and Appalachian State University are doing away with take-home, open-book assignments. The humanities chair at The University of Texas at Austin will teach more niche texts that gen AI tools may not be as familiar with. 

What would you tell someone who’s skeptical about the future of AI writing tools negatively impacting academia? 

My sense from speaking to our global customers is that academic administrations have a finger on the pulse of just how widespread AI writing currently is and will become. However, for any lingering skeptics, my guidance would be that these AI technologies are here to stay. And they will disrupt traditional approaches to assessment, as we know them. 

Writing will and should remain a core part of the high school and higher-ed curriculum. Good writing is the basis for good communication of all types. Writing also hones a student’s ability to analyze, present new insights, craft strong arguments, and in general become a better thinker.

With that, we can focus our collective energy on what’s in our control and how we respond. Educators have been informing us that they have a range of pedagogical and technological tools available at their fingertips to begin identifying the dishonest use of AI in student assessments. What I’m hearing from our customers is that this is prompting even more creativity from educators to think outside the box when it comes to this new educational landscape.

Meet The Author:

Alton Zenon III

Jasper Content Marketing Manager

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