Kenya's academic writing industry threatened as students opt for AI

Students are said to have quickly adopted Artificial Intelligence in order to finish coursework and other activities. [iStockphoto

The booming but contentious academic writing market is experiencing stiff competition from AI technologies, and freelancers are reporting a drop in earnings and work opportunities.

Only four months after its launch, the AI has proven to be a worthy competitor and is now a major source of destabilisation.

Late last year, a company named OpenAI developed ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot technology that swiftly surpassed 100 million users.

The tool has been hailed for its capacity to convincingly replicate human connection. It can also do jobs in the same way that a human would, if not better.

Microsoft included the technique into its Bing search engine, as well as Neeva and DuckDuckGo. With the correct instructions and prompts, a student may utilise it to write a quality essay that not only passes a plagiarism test but also has a human touch to it.

Students are said to have quickly adopted the technology in order to finish coursework and other activities. The technology has mostly been welcomed, but it has also been met with some scepticism.

Currently, ChatGPT is effectively prohibited by the governments and ruling parties of seven countries. Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Italy are among those on the list.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

AI refers to the technology of feeding data to a computer programme designed to learn and recognise patterns in the data given.

AI theory has existed since the late 1950s, but computer power and technique have only lately improved to the point where they can be used on a large scale.

ChatGPT is unquestionably one of the most significant advances in the field of artificial intelligence. Some students at local universities in Kenya have testified to using Chat GPT to generate their assignments.

In January 2023, the online learning platform Study polled over 1,000 American students and more than 100 educators. More than 89 per cent of students claimed they have utilised ChatGPT for homework assistance.

Nearly half of those polled admitted to using ChatGPT for an at-home test or quiz, 53% for writing an essay, and 22% for outlining one.

A woman asking an AI chatbot pre-typed questions while the Artificial Intelligence website answers. [iStockphoto]

The rippling effects have resulted in a significant decrease in the number of tasks for which freelancers may bid or qualify.

Relying on freelancers

Over the last decade, students and scholars from developed countries such as Europe and the United States relied heavily on Kenyan freelancers to complete schoolwork ranging from simple essays to translations, transcribing, and even larger tasks such as PhD theses.

To date, the industry has had limited to no disruption in its operations, with the exception of the Covid epidemic.

According to interviews with dozens of freelancers in Kenya, AI technology has changed the way things are done in the academic writing field.

Mary, a Nakuru-based academic writer, said some of her regular clients are now choosing machine help and hiring them to proofread the final product.

"Previously, I conducted the research, wrote the draft, edited it, and produced a final polished copy, which would cost between Sh500 and Sh700 depending on the length of the assignment.

"However, some clients are now sending us AI-generated content to edit," Mary said.

She adds that the process of editing alone earns her around Sh300.

Lawrence Osoro, 30, who operates numerous online writing accounts that connect freelancers with customers, said the amount of tasks coming in has decreased, but the process has not.

“Not that business has come to a halt, but if you talk to freelancers, they will tell you the number of jobs on offer has reduced,” he said.

Osoro also said his work has been easier since discovering ChatGPT. He said he lets the AI make a duplicate of the task at hand before editing it and filling in holes that the AI may have missed.

"I was chatting with one of my longtime clients, and they told me that one of the essays he was supposed to contact me to complete had already been generated on ChatGPT," he said.

Osoro is a law graduate who has never practised; instead, he acquired an interest in academic writing while a second-year student.

After working as a contract writer for three years, he decided to invest Sh40,000 on an academic writing account in 2019. Now he bids on writing assignments and employs additional writers to perform duties for a portion of the overall rate.

Academic writers are reporting a significant drop in earnings as students now opt for AI tools. [iStockphoto]

For example, Osoro says if a client contacts him and requests that he finish a 500-word essay, he will charge him Sh1,000. He would hire another writer to do the assignment for Sh400 if he gets the contract.

This resulted in a significant rise in his monthly earnings from Sh60,000 to almost Sh100,000.

"I now own three such accounts, and they are all five-star rated, which means those served are happy with the service, and the rating also helps me get more clients," he said.

While there is clearly a shake-up, Osoro remains optimistic about the industry, saying AI would only simplify rather than eliminate their work.

He says the machine-generated writings will likewise require editing.

Osoro went on: "I've been using AI since I learned about it in February. Of course, you can't let the machine do all of the work for you, but it's useful in simplifying."

Laura Tich, a cyber security specialist and the creator of SheHacks Kenya, believes that as AI technology advances, institutions will be able to limit AI-generated writing.

More work done

Tich believes rather than making freelancers obsolete, AI will allow them to cover more work and focus on innovation.

"Machines should be viewed as tools to help us live our lives, not as replacements," Tich said.

In the West, the academic writing sector is regarded with suspicion and has been nicknamed contract cheating or essay mills, while in Kenya, it is seen as a source of income for thousands of homes.

According to a 2018 poll of 50,000 students from around the world, 15.7% acknowledged cheating since 2014, up from an average of 3.5% during the previous 40 years.

The business is dominated by university graduates who are either unemployed or have left their employment to pursue writing careers.

Of 50,000 students from around the world, 15.7% acknowledged cheating since 2014. [iStockphoto]

Foreign governments, including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have previously expressed worry about the academic writing sector, fearing that it is lowering the quality of graduates.

This resulted in a crackdown on some of the websites that provided these services; nonetheless, freelancers contacted indicated that this had little impact on their companies.

Changing ways

Universities have attempted to adapt the way they assess students in response to the danger. 

Increasingly students are being asked to orally present their work in front of a seminar group or to answer questions from lecturers.

Sometimes students are asked to submit study notes, early drafts, and work in progress. However, essay firms have thought of that. For an extra fee, notes and drafts are available too.

The ICT ministry in Kenya estimates about 500,000 youths in Kenya work in the online space. However, there is no breakdown of those doing academic writing.

Furthermore, the online writing industry is unregulated in Kenya and other countries. Plans to mainstream the business and collect taxes from freelancers have yet to be implemented.