Language and expression in the digital age

A loophole saw students in SA with access to Grammarly during their final exams. Is digital assistance a problem, or part of modern life?

The South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) board is investigating how a technical oversight saw some Year 12 students access cloud-based writing assistant, Grammarly, during their English exams.

In November 2022, The SACE Board confirmed that students writing their English Literary Studies exam were able to access Grammarly, a program that corrects grammar and punctuation, and makes suggestions to improve writing style.

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South Australian students started using laptops for exams in 2018, in an Australian first. To make sure students could not access external material during exams, SACE developed a computer management system. The previous version of the system blocked access to apps such as Grammarly; the version that was introduced for the 2022 exams did not block access.

For students, if Grammarly had been installed on their laptop prior to the exam, the app continued to appear and make suggestions to improve their writing. Students who did not have it installed were not afforded this advantage.

In a statement, the SACE board rejected claims that the integrity of exams had been compromised.

“We acknowledge that there has been some concern and confusion in recent discussions regarding the use of editing tools in the electronic examination environment,” the statement said.

“The focus of the English Literary Studies examination is the assessment of a student’s ability to read, interpret and analyse texts and to construct a reasoned argument based on a personal point of view.

“Students must demonstrate their understanding of values, ideas and perspectives, analyse texts and contexts, think critically and select and integrate textual evidence to support and justify their ideas.”

While the board confirmed the incident and said it was investigating, it has spurned a larger debate about the perceived importance of spelling and grammar in English education.

© Chinnapong, Adobe Stock

The use of AI in assisting with exams and assignments was brought into focus again recently, with many Australian states banning the use of Chat GPT in schools.

ChatGPT, or Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, can produce a variety of written responses from songs and poems to computer code and exam responses. Some educational institutions have updated plagiarism policies or rewritten exam questions to minimise the technology’s reach.

Naomi Parry is a lecturer in English in the School of Humanities in the College of Arts Law and Education at the University of Tasmania and said the recent incident raised an interesting question about the role of digital tools within education.

“We live in a digital world, we have autocorrect and predictive text, and all of those things are part of our lives,” she said.

“I use Grammarly, and I know a lot of other writers and editors who use the program within their professional work. Obviously with this situation there was a bit of a glitch, and something that could only happen within a digital environment.

“But I suppose the question is, if we are working in a digital environment, then should we be without those tools?”

However, Dr Parry said she believed that spelling and grammar still needed to be a focus in English, and this should be reflected in assessment.

“I think it is essential that students are taught grammar and I think it absolutely should be part of assessment, that we should be assessing students on the basis of their spelling and grammar,” she said.

“People need to have their own understanding of why a sentence is incorrect, and why it’s triggering Grammarly. English is really the only subject where that’s going to be picked up.”

Senior teacher and South Australian English Teachers Association (SAETA) past president, Alison Robertson said SAETA was also somewhat concerned by the student access to Grammarly during the exam.

“Although SACE has claimed ‘The ELS examination tests critical reading, not spelling or grammar’ the markers are instructed to grade students on Ap3: ‘Use of accurate, clear, and fluent expression appropriate for purpose and audience’.

“Accurate expression entails correct spelling and grammar. It is true that there are many other performance standards also being assessed and that Ap3 is just one, but it is naïve to suggest that spelling and grammar are unimportant in an English exam.”

Additionally, Ms Robertson said SAETA also held concerns about ensuring educational equity between students.

“This is a significant equity issue as not all students can afford the app Grammarly Premium which is downloaded onto their laptop,” she said.

The issue of equity and access was echoed by Dr Parry. “The biggest issue I see is about equity. Students who can afford this technology are going to go for it, but the ones who can’t afford it will have to go without,” she said.

“I think that if some students are going to have access to Grammarly, then all students should have full access to Grammarly.”

Working with university students, Dr Parry said that each year, she sees students start university with a decreased understanding of grammar and spelling, however, she does not think programs like Grammarly are entirely to blame.

“What I really notice is students writing incomplete sentences as well as sentences that do not have a subject. I have students that start sentences without capital letters, and I have to point out that they’re incomplete sentences.”

She believes that students’ use of grammar can also be attributed to the digital age. “We’re trying to teach students that there’s a difference between the way you speak and the way you text and the way that you write, and that is often quite novel for them.”

Dr Parry added that the difference in English skills between “academic” writing and everyday expression was also significant. “You have a written assignment, and there’ll be some kind of effort to write with fluency in that assignment,” she said. “But then you see what they’re writing in the chat rooms, and it’s really amazing how weak their basic expression is. And that’s their day-to-day communication.

“I think it’s an interesting insight into how we are communicating these days. I really do think that with the increased presence of social media, language use is shifting quite profoundly. I don’t know whether it’s bad or good, but it is happening.”

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