Meet your new virtual editorial assistant

How ChatGPT can help publishers develop educational material. Spoiler alert – it can’t write a textbook for you!

The beginning of 2023 has seen a flood of new artificial intelligence (AI) applications hitting our browsers, with ChatGPT leading the charge. AI is simultaneously embedded in applications we use daily, including search, note-taking and typing assistants. You’ve probably used these features unconsciously, as they are practical and ubiquitous. 

What is ChatGPT and how the heck does it answer all my questions?

ChatGPT is different, and the buzz around it is deserved. ChatGPT is an advanced language model developed by OpenAI designed to process and understand natural language in a way similar to how humans do (basically by chatting with it or asking it things). 

One of the key features of ChatGPT is its ability to engage in conversations and respond to natural language queries. ChatGPT can generate human-like responses to text-based prompts using neural network architecture called a transformer. But it doesn’t just make up these responses. Instead, its answers are based on a vast amount of data, including books, articles, and other sources of information, which it constantly learns and updates to provide accurate and relevant responses. The software behind ChatGPT uses natural language processing (NLP). Through NLP, computers are taught to understand and interpret human language. This involves breaking down language into its parts, such as words, phrases, and sentences, and analysing how they fit together to create meaning. 

To engage with ChatGPT, a user provides a prompt. This prompt is a text you provide to the model to give it context and help it generate a relevant response to your query. You can input your prompt into an interface that allows you to interact with the model, such as a website or an app. The quality of ChatGPT’s responses can vary depending on the complexity of the prompt and the version of the model being used.

Robots like reading and writing, thanks to NLP

Some schools and teachers have experienced an existential crisis as ChatGPT has already been shown to be able to answer test questions and draft assignment essays. Other teachers have embraced it to help draft lesson plans, write assessment questions and generate ideas for classroom activities. ChatGPT also has potential as a virtual tutoring tool to answer questions, analyse student-produced text, and suggest corrections to language and grammar.

One of the more exciting uses of the tool is to generate text, particularly marketing copy. It can quickly and easily write you a blog headline (and, in fact, a whole blog post), a blurb for a book or a snappy Tweet. It can also suggest a content outline for a topic and provide related and extension ideas. You can give ChatGPT examples of text written by an author and ask it to write in that author’s style, which it can learn to do. You can also provide it with chunks of text and prompt it to rewrite it in specific ways or generate additional text outputs. When it comes to long-form content writing, ChatGPT struggles. With a limit on the number of characters it can produce, you need to divide a more extended article into sections and feed it prompts to get it to write paragraphs at a time. This limitation, I assume, will change as the next version of ChatGPT is released. 

ChatGPT, write me a textbook?

So what does it mean for the age-old art of textbook publishing, which essentially entails putting structured bits of writing into a coherent structure? Quite a lot, but it depends on having a good editor or publisher who is handy with prompt writing

Publishing textbooks is a time-consuming process that relies on several specialists (authors, editors, consultants, reviewers) at various steps in the process. Some of these steps could be speeded up by expedient use of ChatGPT.

From my initial and relatively limited use of the tool, these are areas where I can immediately see its use for textbook publishers. Note [in bold] that an editor or the publisher must carefully check everything ChatGPT produces.

Checking book structure

ChatGPT can provide a basic book structure with the correct prompt and textual input. You can then use it to drill down to specific topics and compare this to how you structured your book plan. It can even provide a suggested TOC. 

Research

ChatGPT can also be used for research to help inform the development of a textbook. It can provide a vast amount of relevant information when prompted with specific questions related to the subject matter. In addition, ChatGPT can generate ideas for the textbook by providing a wide range of pertinent information and suggestions when prompted with specific topics and questions related to the subject. This can help guide the development of your textbook.

Thanks for the research ChatGPT

Writing comprehension texts

With a careful prompt, ChatGPT can produce comprehension texts for English textbooks at the right language level and the correct number of words. Examples of writing style can be provided to the tool, with a request for it to generate the texts in this style.

Short story written by ChatGPT

Summarising text

One of the main things this tool is used for is summarising texts, which it does masterfully. End-of-topic or chapter summaries and recaps from the textbook for marketing or training material can be generated by ChatGPT.

Summary produced by ChatGPT

Producing simple assessments

Source text can be provided to ChatGPT with a prompt to generate simple assessments (multiple choice, etc.) More advanced activities could also be generated through careful prompt engineering. I think the editor will need to closely review any more complex or higher-level activities. 

Simple assessment based on text inputed from an Economics title

Editorial input

ChatGPT can also assist in improving the quality of the text. It can suggest better ways to phrase sentences, improve grammar, and provide better vocabulary choices to make the text more accessible to students. 

Language level

ChatGPT can be prompted to rewrite content at the level of the learner – this could be useful for texts for younger learners or second-language English speakers. This is a notoriously tricky publishing process for some authors to get right.

Revision

Once the content is written and edited, ChatGPT can aid in the revision process by providing feedback and improvement suggestions. The model can analyse the textbook’s structure, identify areas where more information is needed, and provide recommendations for improving the overall flow of the content.

Blurb writing

Okay, this is not a difficult thing to do, but one I am not fond of. Given the correct input and examples of well-written blurbs, ChatGPT can help write a blurb that will make anyone who picks up your book buy it!

Conclusion

While it is important to be cautious when exploring new technologies, ChatGPT offers a variety of benefits for traditional textbook publishers. I’m optimistic that with its assistance (and other tools under development), publishers can produce course materials more efficiently and effectively, benefiting both the publisher and the students using the textbooks. 

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