NMU Responds Proactively to AI

NMU Instructional Technologist Scott Smith

The rapid proliferation of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), which creates new content from existing data almost instantaneously, is transforming the educational landscape. Some are eagerly embracing AI as a powerful tool that will make learning more personalized and accessible, and provide-data driven insights for educators. Others are concerned it will increase academic dishonesty, generate biased and false information, and adversely impact security and employment. Northern Michigan University is taking proactive steps to ensure that it is incorporated responsibly and effectively.

NMU's Academic Affairs division has asked the Center for Teaching and Learning to put together an AI work group, said Leslie Warren, interim associate provost and dean of Library and Instructional Support.

“The work group will advise NMU entities on best practices and strategies to stay abreast of, or ideally ahead of, the evolving landscape of AI as it applies to higher education,” she added. “In addition to tracking and sharing the evolution of generative AI, the group will draft sample syllabus statements, suggest updates to our academic integrity policy, support faculty in ways to incorporate AI into the curriculum, and coordinate AI literacy programs for students, faculty and staff. We will have more information about the work group, including opportunities to participate, when faculty return for the fall semester.”

NMU Instructional Technologist Scott Smith said the Center for Teaching and Learning has been engaged with generative AI since December of last year. That was when ChatGPT, which uses deep learning to generate human-like text based on prompts from users, was introduced to the public. Smith was approached by Educause, a national organization that advances higher education through information technology, to join its Generative AI Expert Panel this summer. He is also participating in Educause's AI Community of Practice, a year-long exploration of the technology's effects that includes collaboration with professionals from other institutions to formulate best practices and policy suggestions.

“This participation should allow NMU to be at the forefront of AI applications in education, equipping us with strategies to remain ahead of the curve," Smith said. "Generative AI is not going away; Microsoft is adding it to the Office suite of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It's really good at coming up with ideas and creating outlines, first drafts and templates. Faculty can use it in lots of ways, including ideas for lesson plans, course outlines and multiple-choice questions for exams. The data-driven insights AI provides can help educators track students' progress, identify problem areas and come up with alternative learning and assessment strategies.”

The number one concern expressed by faculty members, Smith said, relates to academic dishonesty. They want to know how to detect and mitigate ChatGPT-assisted plagiarism, and find more accurate methods for assessing students beyond the papers they submit.

“Going ‘medieval' and having students write in class with a pencil and paper isn't realistic for the long term,” he said. “But because generative AI draws from an enormous amount of data—basically the entire internet—it can spew out existing biased material. It also hallucinates, or completely makes up information, if it doesn't know something. Essay citations are often nonexistent sources, but look real. All of this is troubling, but it seems to be getting better with new iterations. Faculty need to be aware of its limits and ensure they are awarding students the appropriate grade.”

Smith has partnered with NMU Philosophy Professor Antony Aumann, who gained international media exposure for how he dealt with ChatGPT use by students in his courses, to give presentations on generative AI on campus. They will likely continue those in the fall.

Aumann said the technology's benefits include adaptive support for students with learning disabilities or for whom English is not their first language. It also offers 24/7 formative feedback on the technical aspects of writing—grammar, spelling, etc.—and can come up with compelling and relevant examples that will resonate with students and reinforce the lessons he's trying to teach. Aumann also turns to ChatGPT in his own writing to provide alternative ways of expressing his ideas.

“Last semester, I tried what I call the ‘Wild Wild West approach' to ChatGPT,” he said. “I let my students use it as much as they wanted. When I anonymously polled them at the end of the semester, only 20% used ChatGPT at all. And of that 20%, the vast majority just used AI to help them with their final drafts. I am inclined to think that some of the panic over ChatGPT is overblown. My experience suggests that students are still interested in coming up with their own ideas and in finding their own ways of expressing their ideas. The desire to figure out what we ourselves believe and to share it with others is a deeply human one. I don't see it going anywhere anytime soon.”

Aumann acknowledged two “widespread worries” in academia: that students aren't going to learn to think for themselves anymore; and that if lower-performing students can achieve top grades using ChatGPT, it is necessary to find alternative ways for students to demonstrate their abilities.

Smith agreed with the latter point: “If higher education continues using the assessment strategies in place now, students could feasibly get an A in a class, yet not necessarily acquire the knowledge that will equip them for professional success. The goal is for students to use AI responsibly as a tool to help them learn, rather than simply a tool to get a grade so they don't have to learn.”

Vince Jeevar, assistant professor of Psychological Science, said the faculty will need to get ahead of this new reality and adapt in order to help students navigate an AI-pervasive world for their benefit and “trudge through the garbage.” He also expressed concerns about the technology's impacts beyond education.

“Teaching critical thinking is going to be much more important than teaching subject matter,” Jeevar wrote. “AI offers a system that can create everything we want (leading to laziness, boredom and no need to create anything for ourselves); solve any problem (leading to a lack of inspiration, meaning and purpose); manipulate our beliefs (leading to a lack of open-mindedness or critical thinking); remove our privacy (bringing a lack of freedom); and cut us off from society. I'm not anti-AI—it has the potential to bring so much good. But if history has taught us anything about invention, it's that if something can be used for evil, it will be used for evil.”

The rise of AI artists has stirred debate about whether the technology will be the death knell of human creativity. Jane Milkie, associate dean and director of NMU's School of Art & Design, recalls a keynote speaker at the Revolve CC conference in Marquette contending that graphic designers would be replaced by AI. She put it to the test by using both the Dall-E and MidJourney engines to create a faculty exhibition piece: a medallion to honor the 50th year of The North Wind student newspaper.

“The engines did not build what I planned as a graphic design solution and did not generate typographic forms in what I would have envisioned,” she said. “I have experimented in a limited context, but I am not finding that prospect developed yet to the point where AI is a replacement in graphic design. I am old enough to witness the complete transformation of graphic design from analog to digital. Those working before computers adjusted and learned new ways of doing. I anticipate the AI revolution to parallel that.

“We had a discussion one year ago on how AI engines can create imagery in seconds and how that changes the skills requirements or process of artistic growth, particularly for those in illustration, drawing, painting, photography and computer art. Some faculty were very concerned about the potential negative impact on their disciplines. It was acknowledged that, going forward, AI will be integrated into teaching, learning and creative production and should be welcomed as a tool.”

While generative AI is in its relative infancy and there are differing opinions on its perceived value and impact, one thing is certain: it has already permeated many sectors, including education, and the upward trajectory will continue. Smith said NMU faculty and staff who took notice of the technology last semester will be better equipped to deal with it this fall, when AI will be more pervasive.

Prepared By

Kristi Evans
News Director

Categories: Around NMU