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Blog 248

Blog 248

Inside the Student Experience: AI's Role in Academia

by Robin Sutherland-Harris

As part of the recent university-wide Summit on Generative AI in Higher Education, held October 18-20, 2023, we had the pleasure of hearing from several York University students at our Student Voices Panel. This panel discussion, hosted by Scott McLaren from the York University Libraries, brought together students from diverse fields - AMPD, Biology, Education, English, and International Development Studies - to discuss their firsthand experiences with generative AI in education. Here, we present highlights of this wide-ranging discussion.

Real-World AI Applications: Student Insights

Panelists shared practical examples of AI use, from research assistance to lesson plan creation. While some found AI invaluable for tasks such as summarizing content, brainstorming, differentiated instruction, and student accommodations, others highlighted its shortcomings. One instance in a creative writing course showed how AI suggestions made a story less comprehensible. This dichotomy underscored AI's utility in structured tasks but also its potential pitfalls in areas requiring nuanced creativity. Panelists agreed that support for AI literacy among both students and educators is crucial. A key takeaway was AI's role as an aid, not a replacement, in the learning process.

AI and Academic Integrity: A Delicate Balance

The discussion on AI and academic integrity was critical. Students wrestled with the ethical implications of using AI for content generation versus its use as a writing or research aid. Concerns were raised about AI potentially fostering an overreliance on technology, which could undermine original thinking. The importance of setting clear boundaries to preserve fairness and rigor in academic work was also discussed. Panelists acknowledged that students' lack of time and stress over deadlines could lead to unethical uses of generative AI. They suggested that instructors might adapt course policies and practices to alleviate some of these pressures. This part of the conversation highlighted the importance of understanding AI's capabilities and limitations, especially in maintaining the authenticity and integrity of academic work.

AI Implementation: The Policy and Education Debate

As the conversation shifted to AI policies in education, the panelists expressed varied views. Some advocated for cautious policy implementation, emphasizing that slowing AI's uptake could benefit educational institutions still grappling with its implications. Others highlighted the invisibility of policy and its potential ineffectiveness in changing practices, pointing to the importance of integrating AI into research methods courses and emphasizing hands-on education. The panelists recognized the challenges in the existing grey areas of AI usage. They also suggested that ethical concerns (e.g., copyright and intellectual property, AI potentially deepening the digital divide, bias in generative AI outputs, environmental costs of AI) will need to be accounted for as policy and guidelines evolve.

Looking Ahead: AI's Evolving Role

The panelists speculated on the future role of AI in education, particularly its potential in large-scale courses. While recognizing AI's efficiency in some contexts, they also stressed the irreplaceable value of human connection in learning, emphasizing the need for human stories and individual interaction. Concerns about AI's ability to authentically assess and mentor students were raised, along with discussions on how AI-graded courses might be perceived by potential employers and the broader academic community.

Concluding Thoughts

This panel session highlighted the diverse ways students interact with AI in their academic journeys. While AI can be a powerful tool in teaching and learning, our students argue that its use must be balanced with critical thinking, ethical considerations, and a focus on digital literacy. As AI's presence in education grows, adapting our approaches to its use will be crucial to ensure it enhances rather than detracts from the educational experience.

About the Author

Robin Sutherland-Harris is a white woman of settler descent, who grew up in Treaty 7 territory in Southern Alberta, traditional lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsúūt’ínà First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda. She currently lives and works in the area known as Tkaronto, which has been care-taken by the Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Huron-Wendat. As an Educational Developer at the Teaching Commons, her work bridges pedagogies of access, equity, diversity, and inclusion with support for teaching and learning in blended and eLearning environments. A historian by training, she also serves at the liaison developer for the Humanities departments in LA&PS.

This post was written in collaboration with ChatGPT 4.0, which assisted with synthesizing meeting notes taken by the author into an initial draft, which was then further revised by the author.

OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT (November 6 version) [Large language model].