Higher education in the age of AI

| January 8, 2023

The public’s reaction was swift. A combination of shock and awe filled our news and social media feeds. Conversations with colleagues were peppered with panicked questions: “Did you hear about the new artificial intelligence/AI chatbot?”; “What’s going to happen to higher education/HE?”; “How can we possibly prevent cheating now?”

Within the first week, “over a million” users signed on to try out the latest artificial intelligence – the next progression in AI chatbot technology, ChatGPT.

I asked the ChatGPT to address these repeated questions: “What is the role of higher education in the face of AI?” Within milliseconds, a neat synopsis was generated:

“The role of higher education in the face of artificial intelligence (AI) is to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to understand and work with AI technology. This includes teaching students about the underlying principles of AI, such as machine learning and natural language processing, as well as how to design and develop AI systems.

“Higher education institutions can also play a role in conducting research on AI and its potential impacts on society, as well as exploring ethical and legal issues related to the use of AI.

“Overall, the goal of higher education in the context of AI is to help prepare the next generation of workers and leaders to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by this rapidly-evolving technology.”

In short, HE needs to prepare students for working with AI, and on exploring effective regulatory guidelines.

While ChatGPT’s response touched on elements raised in both recent and past editorials (which isn’t surprising given that the algorithm depends on existing data to generate answers), ChatGPT’s answer is too AI-centric. It fails to represent the lateral thinking of a human answer.

Humans tend to integrate information beyond AI’s reach, such as cultural context and social nuance. To quote one recent article, ChatGPT has “no idea what it’s talking about”.

Reports that ChatGPT sparked a “code red” at Google, signalling ChatGPT’s threat to the company’s monopoly on advanced and intuitive information gathering, supports this.

This code red suggests AI’s role in higher education is not replacing humans, but rather ChatGPT is another tool in educators’ toolboxes, linking learners to vast amounts of content and discipline knowledge with unprecedented swiftness and clarity.

As information technology advances, savvy educators are already innovating in lockstep. Many are shifting away from exclusive teacher-centred information dissemination towards developing learners to think critically about, and apply, this readily accessible information – which improves learning.

Robot's shiny silver hand typing on laptop keyboard.

The humanistic renaissance in higher education

So why all the hype around ChatGPT?

While change is happening, HE tends to focus on performance metrics at single timepoints. Instead, HE needs to (or return to?) focus on our unique human capacity for growth and development.

AI could support our ability to embrace our humanity more, to value our emotional, complex and unpredictable selves to a greater extent, when combined with “humanist/humanistic education”.

ChatGPT defines characteristics of humanist/humanistic education as (paraphrased below):

Humanist/humanistic education is a philosophy and approach to education emphasising:

  • Inherent worth and dignity of all people

  • Capacity for personal growth and self-actualisation

  • Everyone’s unique potential, and right, to reach their potential by focusing on individual needs and interests

  • The critical role of education in achieving this potential.

Humanistic education engages the following educational approaches:

  • Experiential learning

  • Collaborative projects

  • Individualised instruction

  • Critical self-reflection

  • Problem-based learning.

The goal of humanistic education is:

  • To focus on learning beyond knowledge and skills

  • Promotion of inclusivity

  • Building positive relationships

  • Creating a supportive learning environment

  • Encouraging learners to think critically, express themselves freely, and take ownership of their learning.

At this point, many educators may be cheering at ChatGPT’s answer. Humanist/humanistic education can support learner uncertainty tolerance development, and educators have long expressed a desire to be free from over-prescriptive guidelines, discipline silos, and structures motivated by “equality”, but often handicapped meaningful changes.

A 2020 paper published by Haryanto and Dwiningrum from the Faculty of Education at Yogyarkarta State University in Indonesia was aptly titled Humanistic Approaches in Education System of The Industrial Revolution 4.0, and supports the imperative of humanist/humanistic education amid technological innovations.

AI concept with 3D rendering of friendly robot face with degree cap

The future of higher education

Instead of focusing on the A+ assignment and perfect answers, higher education needs to accelerate its pace in moving to a system that rewards the learning journey, revels in human messiness, and focuses on developing curious, reflective and adaptable humans.

While universities are attempting to regulate AI use in assessments,  and some are banning the technology outright, the challenge may be insurmountable. Instead, rejoicing in humans’ capacity for imperfection, and embracing the AI for what it can do, could be the answer.

Many cultures value what the West defines as “imperfections”. The Navajo practice of ch’ihónít’i, for instance, refers to the purposeful weaving of variation (that is, “imperfections”) as “spiritlines” within rug borders.

These unique human fingerprints, described in this blog by Associate Curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art Minea, Dr Jill Ahlberg, have two interpretations:

“[1.] … the spiritline is woven into the textile as an intentional ‘flaw,’ a symbolic path for the survival of the weaving tradition to continue into the future. [2.] … the spiritline is a deliberate design element incorporated by the weaver as a valued expression of modesty. Because nothing in life is perfect…the weaver adds the spiritline to materialize the positive attributes of human imperfection and humility.”

Another example is found in Japanese culture, where imperfection is a feature of beauty termed “wabi sabi”, which seeks to emulate the imperfect, transient and incomplete reality of the natural world.

In the AI age, rewarding the beauty of our imperfections by designing learning activities and assessments that reframe “deficiencies” as human assets that can be complemented by AI could be the solution.

After all, ChatGPT contributed to this article, but it certainly didn’t write it.

This article was published by Lens.