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A digitized man wearing glasses sits in a lecture hall surrounded by students, facing a professor speaking.

Ferris State University is bringing two AI “students” into the classroom in an effort to learn more about its curriculum and the student experience.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | NASA


Ferris State University’s newest transfer students, Ann and Fry, are a little different from their classmates. This spring they will head to class without backpacks, books or laptops. They also don’t eat, drink, breathe or have birth certificates.

Ann and Fry are AIs created by the Michigan-based university, which is enrolling them in courses. The project is a mix of researching artificial intelligence and online classrooms while getting a peek into a typical student’s experience.

“As the student and external environment changes and evolves, we need to make sure we’re prepared and ready to deliver educational experiences that are just as impactful,” said Kasey Thompson, Ferris State’s special assistant to the president for innovation and entrepreneurship.

While Ferris State officials view the experiment as just that—an experiment—some academics are raising concerns about privacy, bias and the potential accuracy of garnering student experiences from a computer.

“The experience of a student can differ depending who they interact with, what their backgrounds are, what their expectations of the experiments are—in other words, a very human and complex experience,” said Stephanie Fiore, senior director at Temple University’s Center for Advancement and Teaching.

Making AI Students

Ferris State is one of the few universities in the U.S. with an undergraduate degree program in artificial intelligence, and it has been looking for more ways to use and research the technology. Last year, Thompson said, the university began exploring ways to put its curriculum “to the test.”

“We’re graduating students with this degree, so what better way for us to understand from an academic perspective what are some of the blind spots, what are some opportunities and how can we refine our program offerings?” said Thompson.

To help “build” the AI students, Ferris State students—human ones—answered a slew of questions, including about how they felt the first day on campus, anxieties they had and their experiences at the college. Neither of the AI bots have any race, political affiliation or gender, and they are intended as a neutral base for researchers.

The “students” are dubbed Ann, for librarian Ann Breitenwischer, who has worked for the university for more than 50 years, and Fry, a homage to Thompson’s decade-plus work history at McDonald’s corporate office.

The pilot program has yet to truly kick off. The AI students will be enrolled in a general education course this semester, Thompson said, declining to specify which exact course. She said the students will start by listening to the class online, with the hope of eventually bringing them to “life” as classroom robots that can speak with other students.

“There are many cases where in academia we haven’t caught up to the changing student environment—the pressures students are under, the expectations of students post-COVID, the delivery of faculty to these students,” Thompson said. “This will help us stay abreast to those needs and identify gaps to deliver excellence in online and hybrid environments.”

Ann and Fry will be students in nearly every way, including getting grades and homework and participating in class discussion. The goal is to have them complete their Ph.D.s and potentially work as teaching assistants or tutors in the future.

Being tutors could be a good use of the AI students, according to Duke University’s Elise Mueller, associate director of teaching innovation.

“Part of what could get implemented is feeding information into a course, where students can ask [the] AI questions and get clarification,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s where they’ll take it, but I think that would be the most effective.”

Concerns and Skepticism

Multiple academics voiced concerns, ranging from worries about student privacy to potential issues with a professor’s intellectual property.

“I would be concerned about AI being present,” Fiore said. “Would I participate in a discussion if I knew data was being gathered in some way?”

Thompson, whose area of expertise is ethical behavior in virtual environments, said multiple mechanisms will ensure privacy and prevent bias. Those guardrails will evolve along with the roles of Ann and Fry.

Much about the program is a learn-as-you-go experiment, Thompson said.

“By no means are we being elusive, but when I say we learn something every day about the process,” she said, “typically in higher education you wait a year after you completed an experiment and release the findings. This is one of the research initiatives we’ve opened [up to the public] from the very beginning.”

YETi CGI, a local Michigan company, is working with Ferris on research and development of the AI students. YETi co-founder Josh Freeney said he expects that when Fry and Ann join (human) students in the classroom, the students will give continual consent to learning alongside the AI students.

“There wouldn’t ever be a moment students would be exposed to something they didn’t consent to,” said Freeney, who is also a former instructor of digital animation and game design at Ferris State. “We’re very aware of the rules on listening technology, and we’re not looking to push any boundaries on that. It’s about accessibility to the materials.”

Fiore and Stephen Aguilar, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, both suggested that if an institution wants to learn about the student experience, the best option would be to simply ask real students.

“There’s no reason to invest in an AI student to try and understand an authentic student experience. It’s not a real student experience; we can pretend all we want, but it’s not,” Aguilar said. “My personal gut reaction is if you want to understand student experiences, talk to students.

While Ferris University does talk to students, Thompson said, the AI students will be leveraging technology, not replacing the human experience.

“I think the whole point of AI is using the technology to identify patterns, trends or data points at a more expedient rate than we have been traditionally able to do so,” she said. “I would challenge anyone asking, ‘Are we replacing them?’ to saying it’s extenuating and leveraging any other technology, from the calculator on; it behooves us to leverage the technology.”

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