University professors incorporate AI into classrooms for curious students
Some college educators are embracing AI in the classroom and teaching students how to best use AI tools in learning. (Photo illustration via Canva)
As higher education grapples with AI technology making its way into classrooms, some Iowa educators are embracing what they see as a tool for learning and a chance to hop on ever-more prevalent technology.
Professors at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa are incorporating AI, or artificial intelligence, into their curriculum in the hopes of teaching students its benefits and drawbacks, and how to properly use different programs to their fullest.
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After ChatGPT launched in November 2022, ISU associate English professor Abram Anders developed the Artificial Intelligence and Writing course, which he believes an increasing number of students will want to take in the future.
“I thought, by next fall, everyone’s going to want to know how to use these tools, everyone’s going to be worried about learning how to use these tools, and wouldn’t it be amazing if we already had a course in place where a faculty member like myself could learn alongside students — learn what the challenges are, what the pain points are, what the opportunities are,” Anders said. “Then we’d be really well positioned, not just to teach students the skills, but also to respond (to them) as an institution.”
Instructor says he’ll learn alongside students
Anders and his students will look at the history of AI and writing technologies, understanding machine learning and language models, and how to use different tools and applications to get the best results throughout the course. They will create their own project using AI tools, with support from Anders.
Students of all kinds are joining Anders’s class, from underclassmen to those seeking master’s degrees, studying subjects ranging from industrial engineering to linguistics to creative writing. While he’s been following generative AI for a while, Anders said the class will help him learn new ways of using AI tools as students utilize them for their own projects. It’s an exciting atmosphere, and can be a creative free-for-all depending on how students implement what they learn, he said.
There’s been both wariness and excitement from those in higher education toward AI tools in writing, Anders said, and the focus so far has been mitigating harm in terms of academic dishonesty and ethics. However, he’s seeing more curiosity from faculty and students about how to best use AI to expand and improve upon their work.
Each of Iowa’s regent universities has released guidance aimed at helping educators adapt to AI tool usage in the classroom. The universities are encouraging educators to set expectations with students about if and when utilizing tools like ChatGPT is allowed. They’re also giving tips on where instructors could incorporate AI tools into their lessons if they wish.
Business students can try AI
University of Iowa business communications associate professor Pamela Bourjaily is adapting by incorporating AI language tool ChatGPT into her class’s three main writing assignments this fall semester.
She test-ran using the technology the semester after it launched, and said she found it useful, as long as students know how to use it correctly. Alongside writing concepts and other lessons, over the course of the semester Bourjaily will teach students a “recipe” for using ChatGPT, ensuring that students know the right steps, constraints and other information needed to generate the best responses. ChatGPT and other AI tools aren’t like Google, she said — you shouldn’t just enter in one prompt and use the generated response.
Using ChatGPT if they so choose, students will create a revision plan for a business email, create their own business document and then a slide deck report. If students don’t wish the use ChatGPT in their assignments, Bourjaily said she will accommodate.
“I’m doing this because I’m teaching business communication, and generative AI will be ubiquitous in the workplace at some point,” Bourjaily said. “In some places, it already is.”
When she first brought up ChatGPT as a potential tool in class, she found that around a quarter of her students were already using it surreptitiously, and they were happy to be able to speak about their experiences openly. A smaller group of students had no interest in using it, and a couple had never even heard of the program.
AI concerns not limited to ethics
When it comes to concerns surrounding AI tools, Bourjaily said she worries less about academic integrity than about proprietary data or other private information being loaded into ChatGPT and students not questioning potential biases in AI-generated content. She likened the program to a calculator or an Excel spreadsheet — it doesn’t matter so much if the students themselves are making the calculations or physically writing responses, as long as the piece is meeting objectives and the needs of their audience.
However, Bourjaily said she is making sure students know they are fully responsible for their work, even if it is AI-generated. If the material is incorrect or doesn’t meet the criteria of the assignment, the program will not be blamed.
I'm doing this because I'm teaching business communication, and generative AI will be ubiquitous in the workplace at some point. In some places, it already is.
– University of Iowa professor Pamela Bourjaily
In teaching about how to correctly use ChatGPT, Bourjaily hopes to curb problems in the program like biases and hallucinatory facts. Often-heard criticisms of generative AI programs include made-up sources in writing and human biases showing up in media. One example Anders gave was of AI-generated images showing stereotyped faces and bodies.
“I think having these activities and assignments will reinforce to them that I care about their success and their ability to navigate the future, because my class is about preparing them for the future,” Bourjaily said.
Anders has also heard criticisms of AI in higher education and writing, including ethical concerns of inputting writing and research into a program that will save that data and use it to generate more material. Some educators have spoken about the potential to put student essays into language programs in order to generate feedback on writing, but privacy issues aren’t yet solved.
AI tools still have plenty of problems that people are right to be concerned about, Anders said, but he believes that many of them will be solved over time. As internet technology becomes more intertwined with people’s jobs and lives, it’s important to learn how to correctly and ethically use them in order to gain their benefits.
“I think one of the one things I would emphasize is that these tools, I think, are really going to help undergraduates and all kinds of professionals do incredible work that they would find difficult to do otherwise,” Anders said. “So as difficult and real as many of those problems and challenges are, there is this huge upside that I think is worth fighting for.”
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