Any English teacher working in FE will understand the trials and tribulations of getting students to complete a piece of creative writing. For our cohort of re-sit students, studying English is the blight on their college experience. Cajoling them into the classroom is a huge challenge in itself; asking them to write a creative piece is like asking them to push a boulder up a mountain using a feather.
When faced with a blank page, the only thing many students who struggle with English can see is a big, blank space. Then the only thing they can think of is the big, blank space, and the more they stare, the scarier and more monstrous it becomes. The physical act of putting pen to paper and starting the story is so overwhelming that they simply can’t make a start. The fear of failure becomes all-consuming, and their well of creativity is just a big, dark void.
Faced with this challenge, teachers are worried that instead of working to overcome this fear, students will simply try to cheat their way out of it with AI. But what if AI was in fact the solution?
Enter The Creative Engine, an AI Chat Bot that is trained to create story prompts based on the archives of Seven Stories. Funded by Newcastle University Humanities Research Institution (NUHRI) in collaboration with The National Centre for Children’s Books and the English Association, a team led by Tiago Sousa Garcia have created an app designed to help students kickstart their writing and boost their creativity.
The Creative Engine, which launches on 23 May, uses the archives from Seven Stories and Inference API (Hugging Face) to generate the opening of a story from a simple prompt. A lot of data gathering, power, expertise, something called ‘Optical Character Recognition’ and technical wizardry has gone into its creation. I don’t understand and won’t attempt to explain the tech behind it, but my students and I were given the opportunity to test it and I am excited by what we experienced.
As a result off my membership of the English Assocation, I was invited to be involved in teachers’ workshops that gave me and colleagues from around the country the opportunity to talk to Tiago, navigate the first prototype and consider ways in which it could be improved to really enhance student experience and creativity. We suggested that the team include starting prompts, the opportunity to customise the page, and a feature allowing students to interact with web pages. The English Association facilitated many meetings in which our collaborative voices and experience helped Tiago and his team to create an app that was effective, affordable and easy to use.
Next, we got the students involved. Tiago visited several schools and colleges including Calderdale College to begin the testing process with three different models. To test each one’s ease of use, he gave the students no instructions, and to test their robustness and effectiveness, he positively encouraged them to try to ‘break’ the apps. They willingly obliged. (NUHRI had implemented safeguarding profanity filters and toxic material and reporting filters, so the students could navigate the app safely!)
At first, the students were a little hesitant; however, after only a few minutes there was a definite buzz in the air. They were really invested in their roles as testers – but something else was happening, something quite beautiful: their faces lit up with enthusiasm.
More than testing the app, they were invested in their stories. They took pride in their creativity. They became alive with possibilities rather than fixed on that terrifying void. Possibly for the first time in their lives, they experienced autonomy in their work, the right stimulus to ‘get started’ and none of the crippling anxiety of the blank page.
My re-sit English class was joyful and itself became a ‘Creative Engine’.
Yes, AI has nefarious potential. But the solution is writ large in this experience. By bringing teachers and developers together, we can see to it that more students are supported to develop their creativity and fewer are tempted to shortcut the process – a net win for creative writing!