Smart future: Implementing AI in higher education

Development in artificial intelligence is quickly changing the way we live our lives. As the world advances at great speed, it is increasingly important we be aware of technologies developing around us.  

Students, instructors and administrators are all grappling with the rapid development of artificial intelligence. But as we try to stay ahead of the curve, AI continues to advance. 

“We have to stay cutting-edge. AI is new. And we don’t have a lot of data to show how it’s impacting student learning,” said Ken Sanney, chairperson for WCU’s artificial intelligence working group.  

Sanney is also the director of the School of Finance, Accounting, Information Systems, and Business Law. He stresses the importance of preparing students to use artificial intelligence in education and industry. 

“We have an obligation to train you all how to use it so that you have competitive advantages in the marketplace to get a job, get promoted, do well and not be left behind,” Sanney said. “Our curriculum needs to update itself, consistent with technological advancements and what our students are going to encounter.” 

The world is in a “wild west” era of generative AI and machine learning– every industry is desperately trying to incorporate AI, but with mixed results because of the lack of guidelines or precedent. Education on the subject is essential to the development of students, and it’s an aptly hot topic within circles of higher education. 

Sanney says WCU’s AI working group is focused on developing methods of best practice, usage policies and educational programs for students, faculty and staff alike. The group hopes to promote understanding and fluency in AI programs that foster successes in the professional world.  

Photo by Liam Bridgeman.

“It’s being used in every industry. If you’re going into nursing, you’re using AI. If you’re going out into chemistry and doing pharmacological research, you’re using AI. If you go into teaching in elementary or junior high, you’re going to be using AI. It doesn’t matter where you’re going, you’re going to be using AI,” Sanney said. 

Ryan O’Sullivan is a junior triple majoring in computer information systems, business administration and business management. O’Sullivan also sees the need for education on the responsible use of artificial intelligence. 

“It’s important for students to use AI correctly, however almost none of them have ever learned or seen how it can be used to assist them without compromising academic integrity,” O’Sullivan said. 

“AI has tons of terrific usecases from visual design and business modeling or even just helping you flush out an idea or concept. It is also great for dealing with tedious actions such as checking syntax or component libraries when programming,” O’Sullivan said. 

Dr. Nora Doyle is a professor in the history department. Both Doyle and Sanney recognize a key distinction in the way students apply artificial intelligence. 

“Through reading and writing we learn to articulate questions, discover patterns in the evidence, and draw conclusions,” Doyle said. “Therefore, if a student relies on generative AI to do the reading and writing for them, they will miss out on the entire purpose of the discipline.” 

“If students can understand the difference and connections between facts and analysis, then they can understand why they need to think and write for themselves, rather than relying on generative AI,” Doyle said. 

“Think of it as a tool that extends our intelligence. But not in a blunt way, it extends it in a reciprocal way where there’s interaction,” Sanney said. “Students who see an upside to cheating are going to cheat. AI isn’t going to change that. What it comes down to is convincing students that AI is a tool that can make them better, not to make college easier.”  

Anyone with an email address and an internet connection has access to the most powerful tool of our generation. Sanney encourages students to task themselves with developing an understanding of AI and becoming literate in its programs.  

“Spaces of teaching and learning have always been shaped by changing technologies, and the amazing accessibility of information via the internet has arguably created the most significant changes for teachers and students in recent decades. Now that generative AI programs are so easy to access and easy to use, it makes sense that this new way of generating information will have a significant impact on the world of education,” Doyle said. 

In the next edition, The Western Carolinian will detail the many ethical issues riddling the topic of artificial intelligence.