Online high school puts summer students on AI-plagiarism notice

By Maggie Macintosh
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Winnipeg Free Press

Manitoba’s online summer school is cracking down on academic dishonesty in a bid to deter students from using artificial intelligence to do their homework.

“Any submission for grading needs to be your work…. All InformNet teachers are aware of and have access to sites like Chegg, Brainly, Quora, ChatGPT, etc.,” states a notice recently posted — in bold and error red — to the virtual high school’s website.

The new consequences for a teenager found to have copied or plagiarized work using any of these sources or related platforms is a zero on an initial InformNet assignment or test.

Repeat offenders are now immediately ejected from a course under the Grades 9-12 academy’s updated policy.

InformNet administrators and teachers were previously asked to discipline students on a case-by-case basis, taking into account a rule-breaker’s grade, maturity level, the frequency of academic integrity incidents and individual circumstances.

Principal Tom Tarrant said there has been a “concerning rise” in students submitting AI-plagiarized work as their own — in particular, language and number-based projects and assignments — in violation of the e-school’s rules.

Late last year, a research firm backed by Microsoft launched a free beta version of a virtual assistant that provides human-like answers to prompts of all kinds. OpenAI’s ChatGPT has attracted millions of users with its impressive ability to write essays, poems and provide written advice within seconds.

Google has since launched a similar chatbot called Bard. Bing Chat, HuggingChat and Claude are among the other conversational and generative programs that have come online in recent months.

Tarrant said the release of a variety of free AI applications has created opportunities both for use and misuse in the classroom and teachers are grappling with setting boundaries to ensure high-quality learning continues alongside and in spite of them.

“When used appropriately, AI helps to spur critical thinking and engage learners. Leveraging these tools also helps our students and staff stay on top of current trends and innovations,” the school leader said.

“On the other hand, some students are misusing the tools available to negatively impact their own learning. When students do this, they are hurting themselves, in the long run, and I want them to know that it’s just not worth the risk.”

While InformNet operates out of Winnipeg’s St. James-Assiniboia School Division, it delivers more than 3,000 courses annually to students living across the province.

Teenagers typically register for a virtual course to complement their in-person learning schedule during the regular academic year, or to get ahead or improve a mark via summer school.

The school declined to provide specific data about academic misconduct incidents and recommended the Free Press file a freedom of information form for such information. The administration did, however, indicate the majority of students are submitting assignments as directed and to the best of their ability.

In response to the rise of AI, teachers have adapted and rewritten assignments, created multiple versions of module tests or incorporated the free apps into projects in a way that encourages critical thinking, Tarrant said.

The principal noted staff members have been working together to develop practices to identify and catch academic dishonesty in the age of AI.

“This can include comparing a student’s current submission to past work, looking for language that is not consistent with the curriculum, strange or out of place errors, and identifying replicable content,” Tarrant said.

Any student suspected of misconduct is given an opportunity to defend their work — a process that involves family and administrators from a student’s home school, he said, adding pupils should seek clarification if they are ever confused about assignment parameters.

The Manitoba Association of Education Technology Leaders has been touting the benefits of chatbots while cautioning school staff about privacy concerns and other ethical issues related to using new AI tools.

Earlier this year, the association sponsored the creation of a free chatbot tailor-made for teachers and students in partnership with Code Breaker Inc., an educational technology consulting firm based in Ontario.

Byte is free and does not require users to create an account for access.

The virtual assistant was designed to provide instant answers to students about their lesson or homework-related questions. It can also help teachers grade multiple choice or short answer questions and create custom learning plans, among other time-saving features.