With the ascension of ChatGPT and other AI-based tools, it is easy for the higher education sector to get swept up in the discourse surrounding what our classrooms will look like in the coming years.
Although it is natural to formulate concerns regarding the effects artificial intelligence (AI) could have on higher education, I believe that to maintain the relevance of our educational processes and learning outcomes, we should embrace AI and its multifaceted impact.
As a former high-tech industry executive at a speech recognition product developer for 15 years, and now as a president of Afeka College of Engineering for the past 10 years, I have witnessed firsthand the evolution of AI across diverse sectors. While it is instinctual to describe AI’s rise as “rapid,” the reality is that AI technologies have been in existence for decades but were mostly transparent to the general public.
In their initial stages, AI technologies were integrated into solutions for specific tasks, such as playing chess or employed in disciplines like speech recognition and computer vision. Recent advances in AI-based applications, such as ChatGPT, have simply made AI widely visible and more accessible.
Currently, the outputs generated by publicly available AI applications often contain errors or misinformation. However, systems trained on enormous amounts of data tend to fine-tune rapidly, leading to increased reliability. On the other hand, if the output of current AI systems is widely distributed, and thus injected back into the AI learning databases, this may impact the overall performance of the systems in ways that have yet to be seen — potentially making it even more difficult to differentiate between reliable and unreliable outputs.
What exactly does this mean for higher education? When it comes to educational processes, in recent years the emphasis has begun shifting from merely imparting knowledge — which is readily available and constantly changing — to imparting competencies that incorporate both knowledge and personal skills, such as self-learning, critical thinking, creative thinking, multidisciplinary teamwork, and effective communication. These are all important skills for functioning in modern society and in the workforce, but they are also crucial for enhancing learning.
ChatGPT and similar platforms only make these skills even more vital. Until recently, learners were expected to research information from various sources and integrate all the knowledge they gathered into one source. However, current AI solutions can quickly accomplish this task for them, making the ability to critically analyze the output received even more crucial. More than ever before, today’s students need to assess whether the information they are exposed to is well-established, coherent, consistent, logical, and validated — all without knowing precisely what sources the data is based on. Then, they must add their own personal input and analysis. In this way, AI tools can raise the level of instruction on our campuses by integrating them into classroom lectures or into homework assignments.
For example, at Afeka we are currently looking at ways to change our approach to teaching computer programming. Since ChatGPT can produce basic software scripts, instead of assigning students exercises in producing these scripts, they can be asked to prompt ChatGPT to produce the desired scripts and subsequently take those scripts to the next level. As the capabilities of ChatGPT and the like improve and expand, we will have to adapt our teaching and learning methods accordingly.I can imagine a day when online life-like avatars function as the ultimate teacher, facilitator, or mentor in a system that personalizes a teaching process adjusted to the learning rate and level of each individual learner.
A recently published UNESCO study found that only 10% of the 450 schools and universities surveyed worldwide have developed institutional policies or formal guidance regarding the use of generative AI, indicating their resistance or, at the very least, their uncertainty in responding to the rapid rise of new technologies. Yet at the same time, a study from Intelligent.com revealed around 30% of college students used ChatGPT for schoolwork this past academic year, underscoring AI’s influence within the classroom already.
AI will change the world as we know it and will have a dramatic, yet not entirely predictable, impact on teaching and learning processes. Although the current uncertainty can be unsettling, resisting this inevitability is futile. Instead of fearing its consequences, we should view AI as a technology that enhances the power of the human brain, much in the same way that the invention of the hammer enhanced the power of the human hand.
I trust that the world will always need scientists and engineers, whose main role is to develop novel solutions to new and existing problems — something which requires the human strengths of creativity and teamwork, as well as an innate understanding and empathy for those affected by these solutions: other humans.
That is precisely why over the past several years we have transformed the educational process at Afeka to focus on developing personal skills such as multidisciplinary teamwork, self-learning, effective communication, critical thinking, and creativity in our students. These skills are vital for success in today’s world of rapid technological progress and ensuring they are learning outcomes of our educational processes, no less so than knowledge, has become our mission.
It is essential to remember that people remain at the root of all technological innovation. Regardless of what technological advances engulf any given moment (and there are sure to be many more in the future), it is incumbent upon higher education institutions to adapt their teaching and learning processes in a manner that instills within students the personal skills that ensure their enduring success during their academic studies, throughout their life-long careers and as productive members of modern society.