What is our primary mission? I turned to our new partner to briefly articulate that “the primary mission of higher education is to provide advanced learning opportunities beyond the high school level, with the aim of developing a highly skilled and educated workforce, advancing research and knowledge, and promoting critical thinking and personal development.” That was the leading sentence of ChatGPT Plus on Feb. 18, 2023, using default parameters responding to the prompt “What is the primary mission of higher education?”
The generative artificial intelligence app went on to note that “Higher education institutions, such as universities, colleges, and vocational schools, offer various degree programs, certifications, and training opportunities that provide students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences needed to succeed in their chosen fields.” In order to accomplish that lofty mission, we face the intimidating new challenge of preparing our learners to integrate and optimize AI into their careers and vision of the future. We would be negligent if we were to fail to prepare the learners for what Stanford professor, innovator and CEO of Udacity Sebastian Thrun says is “the single biggest thing we are ever going to see in our lifetime.”
This is not a task for next year, next semester or even next month. It is the most important role change and challenge for us today. We must not let the graduating Class of 2023 leave their commencement ceremonies without a foundational understanding of what AI is and how it will impact their future careers. If, as ChatGPT says, our mission includes to “provide students with knowledge, skills and experiences to succeed in their chosen fields,” we must not ignore the now-certain role of AI in all professional fields. Yet, I suspect in many disciplines that has been ignored, while faculty continue to teach the skills and opportunities of the prior decades.
In earlier waves of AI and robotics, blue-collar jobs were most affected. Notably, assembly line and other factory workers doing repetitive assembly jobs found their jobs taken by the more accurate, less expensive and more efficient AI-driven machines. Today, most importantly to colleges and universities, the jobs that are becoming vulnerable to generative AI are those that include a wide swath of the graduates who will be seated in robes at graduation ceremonies in May, confident that they are prepared for white-collar careers. When we survey these 2023 graduates three years from now, what will they say regarding how well prepared they were for their careers?
Aaron Mok and Jacob Zinkula write in Business Insider, “ChatGPT may be coming for our jobs. Here are the 10 roles that AI is most likely to replace.” Among the ten are tech jobs (coders, computer programmers, software engineers, data analysts); media jobs (advertising, content creation, technical writing, journalism); legal industry jobs (paralegals, legal assistants); and finance jobs (financial analysts, personal financial advisers). And that’s not even half the top 10 fields listed by Mok and Zinkula.
A new Pew Research Center survey reports that many Americans are aware of common ways they might encounter artificial intelligence in daily life, such as customer service chat bots and product recommendations based on previous purchases. However, only 30 percent of U.S. adults are able to correctly identify all six uses of AI asked about in the survey, highlighting the incomplete and still-developing nature of public understanding. That would seem to be true about the depth of faculty understanding of how AI is now, or will be soon affecting the careers for which their students are preparing.
How, then, do we assure that our faculty members are fully aware of the AI trends and potential in their disciplines? Can we bring home to them the message of just how impactful AI will be in careers?
One response to consider is to train faculty members, small groups at a time, on how to responsibly and effectively use generative AI in their own work, such as revising syllabi and lesson plans. I don’t mean merely using the default parameters in crafting ChatGPT prompts, but rather to dig a bit deeper to understand and use such parameters as temperature, model engine, in-the-voice-of and number to better test out the potential of the tool.
While we need to inform faculty members now, we must also recognize that this is a tool that is undergoing active development and updates. Competition is bringing other tools that will offer up-to-the-minute knowledge bases and more options and become more reliable than the current edition of ChatGPT, which of course also will revise and improve. So, we must project those improvements just as one might have projected in 1988 what the then newly released Motorola “Bag Phone” would evolve into handheld smart phones first released in 1994 and the iPhone in 2007. The development of generative AI will come much more rapidly than the mobile phone evolution, in part because it is made available via user software that can be updated seamlessly on existing hardware.
In turn, faculty members must perform the due diligence of bringing their teaching into line with the changing careers that students in their field of study are likely to pursue. For undergraduate students paying an average of more than $100,000 for a college education, there is an expectation for nothing less. We must teach for the future, not through the rearview mirror. It is unconscionable for students who receive less than forward-leaning teaching. Imagine whole classes of students carrying tens of thousands of dollars in college debt, to emerge unqualified for employment because the faculty did not go to the effort to research trends and developments in order to teach toward the jobs that will be available in 2025 and beyond!
Fortunately, we have a new partner in generative AI that will help us keep abreast of the trends and forecasts. We need to share what we learn now about how to get the most out of our AI partner with our students this semester. They must become fully facile with the technology as soon as possible. This cannot be left to chance, or to someone else, because the ever-evolving generative AI will be our students’ partner as they launch their own careers. Their jobs and futures depend upon it.