Welcome to Spring Semester and to the Next AI Revolution in Higher Ed

Sent: January 26, 2023

From: Vincent J. Del Casino, Jr., Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Colleagues,

I hope this email finds you well and relatively dried out after our very wet January rainy season. I am writing to welcome you to spring and highlight an issue that is animating a lot of conversation on campus and nationally across higher education: the growing presence of “artificial intelligence”¹ (AI) and machine learning systems in the lives of students, faculty, and staff. 

The most recent intersection of AI and education came with the launch of the site ChatGPT (check out the large number of pieces on this in Inside Higher Education). If you haven’t seen it yet please do check it out, as ChatGPT may be one of the most sophisticated we have encountered in higher education. That said, it is certainly not the only one, nor will it be the last. There are many other places where machine learning and AI systems have intersected with higher education, for better or worse, over the last two decades, be that autograding systems or plagiarism detection software or chatbots for answering student questions about their learning and living community on campus, for example. We also, of course, teach about artificial intelligence systems on this campus, from the applied world of building such systems to the ethical questions that arise in a world increasingly punctuated by such systems.  

But, ChatGPT— a tool that, once asked, can write an essay for someone or develop code in Python for others—has some thinking in more apocalyptic terms. After all, if an AI system can write a passable essay, then what will the future of assessment be for us in higher education? Of course, there are some edtech companies who see this as an opportunity. No sooner did I return from the winter break that my email box began to fill with new AI tools that can detect whether or not a paper a faculty member has just received was written by another AI tool. Not lost on me, in all these emails, is the notion that we now have to buy one AI system to combat another. 

I believe that no matter what regulatory or punitive system campuses adopt, the AI revolution in writing (and a lot of other areas) is not something we can set aside. We must, instead, consider how and in what ways we are going to “lean into” these revolutions, shift our teaching and learning strategies to take advantage of such technologies, and create spaces for authentic and sustained student-centered learning. In many ways, this isn’t really fair - asking folks to once again reimagine how they work in classrooms, particularly as everyone has spent so much time recently developing strategies to teach in an online environment. Nonetheless, this is where we are and this is where we will likely stay. 

Given all this, what are some possible next steps? 

First, we have to create space for a robust debate and discussion about the place of tools, such as ChatGPT, in our educational ecosystem. How do the various faculty constituencies want to respond to this evolution? Should we create honor systems, rethink assessment, or establish new means of collaborating with AI systems in the work of our students? 

Second, we have to find ways to invest in the professional development of faculty so that they can create more inclusive and alternative pedagogies that empower students to want to “think for themselves” and/or use tools, such as ChatGPT, as a mechanism to not replace their work but evaluate and assess it. 

Third, we have to be open to this new educational reality and take advantage of this evolution in AI to challenge some of our own core assumptions of what education can and should be. This is a chance to build value for students in their classroom learning spaces where they take up the question - how does all the learning going on in and around our campus benefit from the unique experiences and perspectives of all our students? Put differently, we have an opportunity to co-design the future of teaching and learning in collaboration with our students.

These are but a few quick thoughts on an issue that will continue to permeate our everyday lives as higher education professionals. There is no doubt that ChatGPT and other AI systems are here to stay. To think otherwise would be to deny the world in which we live. How we respond to the changes brought about by ChatGPT and other AI systems as an institution and as individual thinkers and doers in higher education is up to us. I look forward to the robust dialogue that will come from these discussions. 

There is more to come. In the meantime, enjoy the start of your semester. And ask your students what they think about ChatGPT and AI systems more generally for their own learning. Their answers may surprise you. 

Thank you for your continued hard work and dedication to SJSU. 

All the best,
¹   It is not lost on me that the very definition of what defines “artificial intelligence” is quite contested in computer science and other allied disciplines. It is AI or IA (intelligence augmented).