Saturday, April 27, 2024

The sky's the limit with AI (or not)

The last couple of weeks have been quite intense work-wise, so I'm a little late in blogging again. Mea culpa! Here's the reason, though.

It's not often I discuss my job, let alone voice any concerns about it, but the intensity I mentioned was generated by worries about students using AI (Artificial Intelligence) to write their essays. Have any of you had experience of this? It really is becoming quite a challenging issue.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against AI as a tool. It can be incredibly useful, and I use it myself to give me ideas for materials I can use for classes. All I have to do is ask a question with suitable prompts and the AI program will give me suggestions for a lesson plan, for exercises, and even sample texts to use for evaluation purposes, but the thing is, I never actually use what it gives me. I just use the ideas.

The first problem with AI tools for teachers and students is that it's clever, but not clever enough. The ideas it can produce are generic and offer nothing original – for obvious reasons. After all, it can only produce what it has drawn from the mass of data it has absorbed from elsewhere. The second problem is that students don't seem to have understood these limitations, and believe if they ask ChatGPT (the most popular tool in academia) to give them an essay that answers a specific question, they can use the seemingly perfect answer it produces and the teachers won't notice. A big mistake on their part.

I won't go into the circumstances in which this issue has arisen recently, but suffice to say it became obvious that a few students were doing just what I've described, but what's worse, they were doing so in a test situation. Their essays were strangely fault free, their paragraphs were all the same length, and the arguments in their texts reflected little to no personal thought or experience and only very general ideas. Now, as a native-speaking writer myself, I know it's impossible to write a 350 word text in half an hour without making a single typo or error; nor will I produce sentences all of the same length, or have the ideal number of five sentences in a paragraph. Only super humans (or AI) can do that. 

When I write this blog, for instance. I make heaps of silly mistakes and I have to edit it numerous times before I've eliminated them all. My sentences are often far too long and I naturally ramble, so I have to cut out words, shorten sentences and improve on what I've written. It all takes a substantial amount of time, and even then, I nearly always end up with a typo or two that Koos points out to me. I haven't even noticed them.

So to add to the unlikelihood of the fault free writing, the third problem is that we cannot actually prove they've used AI. You see, if I give ChatGPT the same question four times, I'll get four different essays, so it will never be flagged as plagiarism. As I said, it's clever, but not so clever we cannot sense its use in the style and content.

But what do we do about it? If we're trying to test students' ability to write at a certain level, and AI is doing the work for them, it's a serious matter. These kids are neither exercising, nor proving, any educational skill or academic level. The only solution I can think of is that schools and colleges will have to revert to controlled exam conditions with students using paper and pens instead of independent computers. But that would really be turning the clock back, wouldn't it?

Fortunately for me, the problem isn't mine to overcome; I'm just one of the assessors. But it never feels good accusing a student of effectively cheating when you don't have the evidence they've done so. What if they were really just that accurate? It's incredibly unlikely, but not impossible. 

In the end, however, the sky might appear to be the limit when it comes to AI, but to me it feels as if it's another nail in the coffin of real education, the kind of education where students use critical thinking and argue a point based on their own observations or research; that is unless we can teach them to use it as just a support rather than a replacement. What do you think? I'd be interested to hear of any experience you've had with AI.

Anyway, on the same, but slightly different subject, here are some photos of the stunning skyscapes (or limits) we've been having between the rain showers, as well as a couple of pretty spring village scenes, and Zoe, of course (for Rebecca).


Tuesday, April 16, 2024

From winter to spring and back again

It's been the oddest time here in Zeeland. Honestly, last week, we thought we'd come to the end of the miserable winter weather. The sun came out; we went for some lovely walks; Zoe shook off some winter fluff and we even got to spend the weekend on Vereeniging. The photos below are the evidence. Look at that cerulean blue sky and the puffball clouds!

I loved this view of one of the great sea ships on the canal in the distance with Zoe snuffling in the foreground.

In the fields nearby, the horses were out to grass again. The photo above is from a bit later last year – May, I think – but the same horses were in this field last week and the baby has grown quite a bit already. It was so good to see them. Zoe and Lucy, her pal, found them quite fascinating, like dog TV, so we had to stand and watch them graze while the pups sat and gazed at them adoringly.

And of course, we've been out and about. The photo above is totally gratuitous cuteness, but my excuse is that it's for Rebecca (if she sees it :)). I love the way her little paws are tucked in.

Best of all, though, was being able to spend the weekend on my Vereeniging. With all the recent storms, it's been impossible to stay over, because we've never been certain we could get on or off the barge. When the wind blows hard from the west, as it often does, it pushes her away from her mooring and I can't reach her to climb aboard. Try that with a dog as well. I can help Zoe jump the gap but then can't bridge it myself – either on or off. Anyway, last weekend was glorious and only just a bit breezy. I even worked outside in a T-shirt, managing to sand the teak entrance hatch and give it a coat of varnish, which it sorely needed.

I love waking up in the harbour; it's so peaceful. The two photos above and below were taken on Sunday morning when I was out for a walk with Zoe. The harbour is very popular with pooches and their people, so we had plenty of fun time as well as working on smooshing Vereeniging up a bit.

However, and here's the thing, we're back to winter again now. I can hardly believe I'm writing this, but it's now really cold and stormy and we've got high winds, lashing rain and hail. Last Saturday it was 24C and today, it was only 6C when I went into the village an hour ago. Is this normal for April? Maybe, but I'd be very grateful if it would just stop and give us back that lovely sunny warmth. I was really hoping to be able to get used to it.

In other news, I was also wrestling last week with the production of my new travel memoir. To cut a long and anxious story short, I published it on pre-order with a less than perfect version of the content. Big mistake on my part.

Unfortunately, you have to upload the content or you can't promote the possibility for readers to pre-order it. I was still waiting for some final feedback from my readers, and knew I'd be making some changes, but thought I'd be able to upload the best version before D day (or rather P for publishing day). One thing led to another and I realised I needed a bit more time to sort out some formatting issues and a couple of small glitches, so I tried to postpone the release date. 

And this was the real mistake. 

I'd obviously done something wrong, although I have no clue what, but Amazon wouldn't let me change it. Anyway, I've sorted everything out now, and it's released, but it was a bit stressful. Self-publishing is a choice for me, and I actually enjoy the whole production process. I like the formatting and cover design; I enjoy the nitty gritty of getting things right (as best as I can anyway), but there are times when I'm glad I'm already grey-haired. What did I learn? That I'm not sure I'll be risking that pre-order process again...

If you're interested in taking a look, here's the link to the book on Amazon US, but it's available on all Amazon marketplaces.

So that's it for this week allemaal. Keep your fingers crossed that spring returns to our shores soon. Enjoy the rest of your week! 


Friday, April 05, 2024

Meandering through northern France and along the Marne

Last weekend, we arrived home from another short visit to our new most frequent destination—the beautiful Haute Marne where daughter two has a second home. Despite the really gruesome weather, we enjoyed the trip very much. 

Breaking the journey each way helped tremendously, and we are incredibly thankful that Zoe is such a good traveller as well as being no trouble at all in hotel rooms. She takes it all in her stride and seems to enjoy all the new sniffs and snuffles that come with a new place, especially as we try to stay in hotels that have these gallery-type rooms where you access your 'chamber' from an outside passage. It makes it much easier for late night pee walks—and early ones too! 

The first night, we stopped at Laon in the Aisne department. Avoiding the toll roads on route took us through some delightfully pretty scenery in the ThiƩrache area of the Nord and Aisne departments. I've never seen hedgerows in this part of the world before. They seem so English to me, but the stretch we drove from Landrecies (south of Valenciennes) to Vervins covered some gorgeous hilly countryside with hedges surrounding every field. I could have been in England's West Country again. The ThiƩrache is known for its magnificent fortified churches. However, another special feature of the area is the way the old brick homes are built end-on to the roads. One village we passed through, Prisches, had rows of these wonderful old houses. We didn't stop to take photos, but here's one I found on a website about the town:


Once we arrived in the Haute Marne, our main purpose was to explore some of the villages along the Marne river and its corresponding Canal entre Champagne et Bourgogne. Like our beloved Sambre and Oise rivers, the Marne weaves its way to and fro under the canal, which means there are a number of aqueducts along the way.

Now, I don't know quite why, but I have a thing for aqueducts and love seeing them. When combined with a river bordered by enchanting villages, I am in my own kind of heaven, even when it's raining. Yes. Just think of that.

We visited Gudmont-Villiers, Rouvroy-sur-Marne, Villiers-sur-Marne and Froncles all in the space of the afternoon. The prettiest were undoubtedly Villiers and Rouvroy. Their limestone cottages complete with shutters and big barn dooors are as charming as it is possible to find and to add to the rural joy, we saw a field with pot-bellied pigs just metres from the aqueduct. I didn't take many photos because of the rain, but here are a few–of the canal or course. We managed to catch a few moments when it wasn't tipping down.

The walkway next to the aqueduct

The River Marne over which the aqueduct flows

Rural road leading to the
Canal Entre Champagne et Bourgogne

The Halte Nautique at Froncles with a hint of sunshine...we dream

Such a beautiful place to stay

On our way home, we spent the night in Maubeuge, the reason being we wanted to go to our favourite marina at Erquellines, just over the border in Belgium. Once again, the weather was diabolical, but we still enjoyed being there. It's been in our minds to take the Hennie Ha there again. For my part, I hope that's not just a dream.

Two boats at Erquellines belonging to a friend of ours

Southern Belgium, in other words Wallonia, remains very dear to my heart and I love being there. It has a stillness and calm we both cherish and the Sambre river is a particular favourite.

Our last stop before ploughing our way through torrential rain back home was to a backstreet of Jeumont (back in France, but right on the border). Koos wanted to show me this unique house he'd seen some years ago when on a scooter ride. It's concrete but built to look like tree trunks and branches. Isn't it wonderful?

So that's our travel trip for this week, allemaal. I hope you enjoyed the ride. It's been raining here all week but they promise warmth and sunshine tomorrow. Let's hope this weekend is the start of something drier!