The ethics of AI in higher education

The onset of AI has brought new, exciting creations but, like many innovations, challenges persist. Concerns especially in the realm of education have become a hot topic from K-12 to higher education. Many can agree, ethical issues are at the heart of the growing intelligence.  

The release of ChatGPT in late 2022 threw educators for a loop as students began using the software to cut corners, avoid studying or blatantly cheat. But not all students were using AI with ill intentions with some applying its power in constructive ways. 

Regulation of artificial intelligence, in the context of education, is and will remain critical to the development of students and faculty. But regulation surrounding AI is proving to be extremely difficult.  

Samuel Altman, CEO of OpenAI, has pushed for strict governmental regulations since May of last year. But regulation of artificial intelligence, in almost any context, remains virtually nonexistent. OpenAI has published a list of user guidelines, though no hard limits exist within the program. 

Ian Selig of the WCU Coulter Faculty Commons published guidelines for teachers regarding AI. Much of his report is based on the OpenAI user guidelines, but he adds a few more. He suggests the “hyper-customization” of input prompts as well as the implementation of “authentic” or otherwise unique assignments which can’t be completed by AI. 

Faculty are free to regulate the use of AI in their classrooms, but no binding policies exist from WCU. “WCU does not have a specific policy about artificial intelligence use. Faculty may consider reviewing information about artificial intelligence and sharing their clear expectations with students,” the WCU Institutional Policy and Student Assistance report reads. 

Some students are less educated on authenticity and plagiarism surrounding AI, leaving them to bear an ethical dilemma. 

Many problems currently exist within the credibility and acceptance of artificially generated material. As complexities of these programs expand, so do issues within them.  

Two professors in the WCU college of business, Lorrie Willey and Barbara White, along with ECU professor of business Cynthia Deale authored a research paper titled “Teaching AI in the college course: Introducing the AI Prompt Development Life Cycle.”  

The paper focuses on educating students on the effective use of AI programs and deciding when AI use is appropriate. 

The authors note a lack of preparedness in academic administration. “The news of the free open-source generative AI service rattled many in higher education and the first reaction, not surprisingly, was a rather impulsive, negative one, that ChatGPT should be banned from education,” the paper read. 

“In education, it is better to face AI head on and decide how we can use it to our advantage, in and outside of the classroom. Trying to ban or ignore it will not be successful,” Willey said in an interview with The Western Carolinian. “The initial concern for many in education involves violations of academic integrity and students potentially using AI to complete assignments, papers, activities, tests, et cetera.” 

Even if guidelines are in place, the issue of regulation still plagues educators. Students are effectively free to use programs however they choose, so long as they hold themselves accountable. And because no concrete governmental regulations are set, it’s up to the individual to use AI in a responsible manner. 

WCU’s AI Working Group, led by Ken Sanney, is making plans to educate students on how to use AI constructively both in education and industry. Sanney is the director of the School Finance, Accounting, Information Systems, and Business Law. He hopes to prepare students for the future of artificial intelligence through systems of trial and error. 

“We’re looking at policy to make sure that we’re getting everything right in a way that we have governance in the age of decisions of AI,” Sanney said.  

Willey is concerned that the use of artificial intelligence in higher education may stunt the fundamental values that college courses aim to teach. “When students cheat, they cut off their ability to ‘learn how to learn’ which is really the essence of higher education.”

“The process of learning will always involve time and spending the time to engage with new material. AI is here to stay so it is important for faculty to think about and encourage the use of AI to aid learning rather than negate it,” Willey said. 

Legislation regulating AI use will likely be seen in the very near future. Lawmakers, educators, and industry leaders are quickly working to develop models that draw the most benefit from AI while managing its many risks.