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A top U.S. pioneer in not-for-profit online education is stepping down from his leadership post after creating one of the nation’s biggest universities, and he is turning his attention to what he called an urgent need to integrate artificial intelligence into the postsecondary sector.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University since 2003, said he was moving ahead with disappointment and concern that U.S. higher education has not taken much more seriously the need to quickly address the potential and the implications of AI for institutions and their students.

“This is massively important,” LeBlanc told Times Higher Education, describing an initial wave of AI that has helped some faculty members update their courses much faster than ever before, but that then leaves them struggling to reliably assess student performance. “Overnight, AI has made almost all curricula out of date.”

In preparation for his departure from the presidency this summer, LeBlanc said he has begun assembling a small AI study team at SNHU headlined by online education innovator George Siemens, who also views U.S. universities as having almost completely ceded to the private sector the development and use of AI in education.

Siemens, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of South Australia, talked of academic leadership being asleep at the wheel and now needing to act on the scale of a few years or less.

“There’s no foregone conclusion” about how AI will shape universities, he said, “but there are people with conclusions selling services to us—and the fact that we’re not in that arena, that’s the part that alarms me most.”

LeBlanc has gained renown for building SNHU from a small regional institution of a few thousand students into a global behemoth with more than 225,000 online learners. Siemens, meanwhile, co-created and taught the first massive open online course back in 2008, well before ventures such as edX and Coursera made the concept familiar.

Siemens remains a national leader in technology-infused teaching, and he agreed to join LeBlanc at SNHU to take a “clean-sheet approach” to AI—redesigning higher education without any restraints because of current norms.

Both offer standard caveats about having no ability to predict where the pursuit will take them.

“We’re early in the work,” LeBlanc said. “And anyone who pretends to have clarity about what that is, I would distrust, including myself.”

Siemens said he also could not be sure of the basic direction, including whether AI will cement higher education’s drift into an increasingly job-centric and mercenary mind-set or create unimagined new freedom for faculty and students to ignore tedious distractions and prioritize human and societal development.

“But I do know that trying to answer it is a hell of a lot better than absorbing the answer that big tech offers me,” he said, noting that across U.S. higher education, “There hasn’t been a significant leadership response that meets the needs of the moment.”

LeBlanc’s experience with SNHU can be taken as foreshadowing either direction. On the one hand, he built a student-first ethos while much of online higher education became known for for-profit exploitation. He talked of a governing board that readily agreed to shift millions of dollars during the pandemic to boost SNHU’s already high adviser-to-student ratio when it became clear that completion rates were dropping, and spent another $1 million helping family members of its Afghan students escape the Taliban takeover. He points with pride to keeping SNHU’s undergraduate tuition fees below $10,000 and to student satisfaction rates of 95 percent.

At the same time, SNHU is designed to help large numbers of students get the essential training they need, at the lowest possible cost, to land them a foothold in a workforce marked by rising income inequality. Its most popular major, by far, is business administration and management.

As for practical applications of AI, SNHU is already finding some. A chief area, LeBlanc said, was curriculum design. Creating a new course previously took many weeks, and the use of AI has cut that time by more than a quarter.

And while many across U.S. higher education fear that AI-generated text has destroyed the reliability of higher education’s traditional, fundamental assessment tool—student essays—LeBlanc is pushing SNHU faculty to seize the opportunity. Rather than joining other institutions in trying to detect ChatGPT’s use and ban it, he actively encourages lecturers and students to use such tools in their writing classes. But, he said, the students are asked to show the prompts they gave ChatGPT to generate their essay, then show how they improved it and how they determined what information in it was accurate.

“Prohibiting a tool, that will actually be the tool they’re expected to use, seems nonsensical to me,” he said.

Ideally, if AI takes over jobs that are routine and repetitive, LeBlanc said, that could add value in education and in the job market to professions that are most human-centered, such as teachers, social workers, counselors and coaches. “We’ve never needed it more,” he said.

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