a large deer with the caption "do I look startled"

A Response!

A response to “Universities like ‘deer in headlights’ on AI, says edX founder”

Published on 27th September 2023 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/edx-founder-universities-deer-headlights-ai  

The metaphor “deer in the headlights” used by the chief open education officer of 2U/edX implies that universities are in a state of paralysis “in the face of an impending challenge” –  in this case, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) in education. Firstly, and to reiterate, these are Large Language Models, algorithms, and headlines calling it AI are building a narrative that these tools have agency and consciousness. They do not. But further, this metaphor is both imprecise and unfair in characterising the attitudes and actions of universities toward “AI”. 

Research-Driven Caution

Thankfully, universities are largely places of evidence-based practice. We are cautious in our approach to change, we seek evidence. And if we are being careful towards AI then that is a good thing, it should be seen as responsible stewardship, ensuring that technologies are implemented based on thorough research and evaluation, rather than mere trend-following, and hyping up the edtech entrepreneurs marketing spin.

Ethical Considerations

I sound like a broken record… AI raises significant ethical questions, such as data privacy, algorithmic bias, and the digital divide, which universities may be taking the time to address comprehensively. Plus we have seen some downright awful practice in the development of these tools. To criticise them for not moving rapidly could be seen as ignoring the elephant in the room.

What about the Pedagogy

‘Personalised learning at scale’ is not universally accepted as the ideal educational model. At the basic level, socratic dialogue, peer teaching, and group-based learning are educational paradigms that cannot be replicated by a large language model or algorithm. A cautious approach? Yes please, let’s not pretend that we can just drop years of experience around teaching and learning into a tool and hope for the best. 

Not all institutions

The “deer in the headlights” metaphor paints all universities with a broad brush, ignoring the ones actively researching and implementing AI in their educational systems. We know that many institutions have already begun to offer courses on AI, machine learning, and even ethics in AI. It also assumes that all institutions are wealthy enough to “just do it”. Adopting any new technology requires significant financial investment, and many institutions may be securing funds, training faculty, and upgrading infrastructure, which are processes that don’t happen overnight.

There is a difference between Corporate and Academic

Agarwal’s comparison of universities to the corporate world overlooks the different missions, timelines, and stakeholders involved. Corporations may be more agile but are often driven by profit motives, while universities have educational legacies and ethical responsibilities to uphold. He is a professor, serving in an institution, perhaps he’s forgotten the purpose of education in the race to scale education through his MOOCs.

The academic world thrives on debate and critical evaluation. Insulting respected universities by describing them as “deer in the headlights” does not further the discussion. All it does is provide marketing and spin for EdTech and AI companies trying to make a profit. But in universities, before implementing a transformative technology, we need a period of active debate and discussion that might appear as ‘inaction’ to people who are not involved in the academy, but that is a necessary part of the academic process.

We need to remember the “youth” of these tools. At the point of writing one of the most popular tools, ChatGPT, has been widely available for less than 12 months. We have no idea of the implications of these tools on student learning, and staff practice. However, universities are accruing evidence, use cases, and reflecting on what that mean in a range of academic scenarios!