Exploring Perspectives on Emerging Technology in HE

Development Monthly | #19 May 2023 | Digital Evolution in HE

Jordan Paterson (he/him)

Member Engagement Officer

Jordan Paterson (he/him)


On Thursday 20 April, I attended the first day of Times HE’s HashtagHigherEdUK event at Newcastle University. A panel, entitled ‘Personalisation, content generation and gamification: How university marketing departments can embrace AI writing tools’, particularly excited me. I can’t speak highly enough of the panel and the quality of the speakers who translated a complex, new technology into a concept that people could realise the implications and applications of. Much of the foundation for this article is from their expert insights and my own personal views. 

The recent developments in AI continue to be explosive and vast. AI-generated tools Midjourney and ChatGPT have thundered into public conversation, creating passionate dialogue over possible ethical implications. The scale of these concerns are demonstrated with current strike action from the Writer’s Guild of America. Personally, as a 31-year old millennial, chatbot-style tech is not some mythical, witchcraft-ion, otherworldly concept. I grew up with Akinator and MSN Messenger chatbots, where you input text and receive responses. At a glance, the tech discussed in this article doesn’t seem that much more advanced than what I was playing around with as a teenager. So why has such an emotional response occurred? What I think makes AI writing tools such as ChatGPT so novel is the level and depth of automation, their ability to “learn”, and to pass a Turing test with ease .

How does ChatGPT work?

“This humongous dataset was used to form a deep learning neural network […] modelled after the human brain—which allowed ChatGPT to learn patterns and relationships in the text data […] predicting what text should come next in any given sentence. ChatGPT works by attempting to understand your prompt and then spitting out strings of words that it predicts will best answer your question, based on the data it was trained on.”

Source: https://zapier.com/blog/how-does-chatgpt-work/

During the panel, Peter Bloom described ChatGPT as ‘transhuman.’ It’s not of its own devices, and it’s not entirely something of singular-human design. Rather it is a collaborative tool that requires human engagement. Using it invokes a process between algorithm, databases, other users and the AI itself. In my opinion, in its current state in terms of HE, it can be disruptive but not destructive. Like the internet, it will change how we engage with the world. The important thing is to acknowledge the need to evolve and adapt so we can maximise the benefits. I came across a brilliant article highlighting 5 ways that AI has already been utilised in HE.

AI tools in the HE Sector: “Welcome to the desert of the real”

The panel focused largely on applications for AI tools used in marketing for tasks such as writing copy, meaning the often-taxing task of writing promotional material could be heavily streamlined. However, there are caveats, as in its current state ChatGPT cannot create one hundred percent completely accurate, engaging marketing content. However, it can be used for re-wording, as a second pair of eyes and to inspire ideas. This could create issues as the perception that a significant part of the marketing-creation process could be automated, could result in even more demand. This highlights the importance of using this tech strategically. The balance between automation and human authenticity is crucial. I think it will be best used if we don’t lose our human touch. The panel concluded that the next five years as marketing professionals will be key. We will need to determine how databases for these tools are developed as there are many opportunities.

Using AI tools as a student

Students could use AI writing tools to write personal statements and applications. ChatGPT can be used to structure an application, research an institution and re-word key sections. The ethics of this are vague, as it could mean applications won’t realistically reflect personal desires to study at a specific institution, or accurate writing skills. Then again, students may currently receive unfair advantages when writing applications, without AI writing tools, so maybe this is something we embrace. Perhaps we will move away from personal statements to other forms of submission. In addition, AI could be used to “eliminate applicants that were very unlikely to be admitted in order to free up staff time to concentrate on the more viable candidates.” I’ll let you decide which 90’s dystopian sci-fi flick that sounds like.

If students use the current version of ChatGPT to write essays, we could we see a multitude of similar assignments due to the way it presents knowledge. Students relying entirely on this tech are likely to fail due to pitfalls with fact-checking. The panel provided one example where after giving the current version of ChatGPT a prompt, it regurgitated the first eight results on Google. However, students could use these tools in a smarter way, re-wording and adapting academic work. Again, the ethics of this are unclear but I think this could contribute to the reduction in someone’s academic understanding of a subject and their overall writing skill.

Free your mind and move forward with purpose and professionalism

There is a lot to take on board here. Every day presents new applications for this kind of tech, both potentially positive and horrifying. The panel identified that AI technology will change how we interact with the world, and I would argue some major, culture-altering changes will come about. I feel the more concerning aspect is that many of the primary concerns in regard to internet-usage were not fully considered back at its genesis. The concerns we have now will be completely different to those we have in ten years from now. In my opinion the only way to intelligently respond to this is to become educated in it.

AI writing tools are continuously developing, and as they are trained to learn from our interactions and text on the internet, WE are also learning from THEM. We must acknowledge that this is a two-way process. Our roles will adapt, for some HE professionals more than others. I think there should be no guilt in enjoying new technology. Experiment and try it out, test it, see what it can do. Understand where it is at now and contemplate where it could be. I think there is also no guilt in being fearful of this type of advancement although people will have different levels of comfort in approaching it. What is arguably unacceptable is complacency.

This tech, to the most dismissive, is a glorified MSN Chatbot from the late 2000’s. To the most fearful, this is the beginning of the end-of-times. It is the onset of Judgement Day, at least for the current status-quo of student admissions. To the most optimistic, it is a real and tangible tool we can use to learn and adapt. It will change the way we work for the better. I think it’s true value will be found in the commitment of professionals to adaptive learning.

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