Even with all of the noise around ChatGPT, many aspects of our work in higher education simply cannot be replaced.

by Dustin Ramsdell

For anyone in higher education paying attention to the news lately, ChatGPT, a generative AI platform, received a flurry of articles and thought pieces. Many of these articles mention how it will reshape the entire ecosystem. While ChatGPT will bring in another wave of disruptive changes to the sector over the next few years, I don’t think the impact of this tool is going to be as dramatic as many are making it out to be.

Higher ed seems prone to existential crises, especially since the onset of MOOCs in the US in 2011. When these free online courses burst onto the scene provided by Coursera and edX among others, many in the field felt this would herald the end of higher ed as we knew it. In actuality, these platforms simply integrated into a spectrum of offerings for students which works far more often within traditional higher ed systems than replacing them. Then we’ve also had to endure the hysteria around OPMs, bootcamps, TikTok and the enrollment demographic cliff

All of these events have (or will have with the enrollment cliff) real impacts on campuses. The scope of these impacts is much different than many would have you believe at the time. I believe ChatGPT falls within this camp as well. I’m an eternal optimist as well as a realist, so I want to bring my tempered positive perspective to this topic. 

To me, the easy way to analyze how ChatGPT will integrate into campus life is to focus on the two major pillars of how students navigate their time at an institution — academic affairs and student affairs. There are parts of each of these pillars which ChatGPT will replace and that is a good thing. In addition, there are aspects at the core of these experiences which cannot be replaced and is also a good thing.

Academic Affairs

Faculty understandably feel concerned about academic integrity when it comes to a generative AI platform like ChatGPT. This tool makes it even easier for students to submit assignments which are not their own work. While higher education constantly battles academic integrity, the proliferation of ChatGPT made this issue reach a breaking point within the field of academic affairs.

Another perspective on this issue is it creates an opportunity for faculty to rethink their reliance on the types of assignments ripe for students exploiting with a tool like ChatGPT. The easiest way to counter this includes proctor timed exams which aren’t conducive to students looking up answers at the moment. 

The better way to do this is to think of more unique ways to have students reflect on the content they’re reviewing and apply it to the world. Faculty should move towards mastery goals of learning versus performance goals. Basically, create learning experiences fostering student agency, giving feedback and continuous improvement as a way to grow. If ChatGPT ends up as the tool to help instructors replace their overreliance on performance-based assessments, it will be a good thing for students.

What’s irreplaceable in the academic experience obviously includes instruction and the personal touch faculty offer to students. This will never go away as long as we prioritize this for students. While there are many completely asynchronous digital education options for students, ideally an AI tool like a chatbot helps students solve problems and triage ones which need faculty intervention.

Student Affairs

When it comes to the outside of the classroom experience, fewer concerns exist regarding the immediate impact of ChatGPT. There aren’t similar issues related to ChatGPT, but the biggest concern is whether a tool like ChatGPT would replace the work they do with students. The way this disruption should be handled is by using generative AI platforms to augment and amplify the work staff does. 

These tools are an asset for staff to better understand and respond to the current trends on their campus by analyzing massive amounts of data. This includes insights into student activity in the LMS, scheduling course sections as well as flagging other potential retention risks. The goal here is to combine high tech with high touch. Make sure opportunities exist for human interaction with these processes to not entirely rely on automation, but leverage AI to help staff work smarter not harder.

The key pain point where AI already started helping is the ability to do more with less. Staff have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by the same basic questions, and advancements in chatbot technology allows for staff to handle routine questions while providing more consultative support on more complex issues. These tools are commonplace across other sectors of modern life but higher education lagged behind. Students now interact 24/7 on mobile apps, via text messaging, and on websites to get questions answered based on a curated knowledge base of frequently asked questions. If the dialogue encounters a roadblock where the chatbot cannot answer the question, it automatically escalates to the appropriate staff member to address through a ticketing system to track management and completion of the request.

But once again, the personal connections staff members develop with their students and among their students cannot be replaced. While the connection absolutely happens in-person or online, especially when using the right tools, the ability to challenge and support students is a crucial part of this work which must always be emphasized by institutions.

Higher education has always been a deeply relational ecosystem thriving on the human element of its work. As we continue through a disruptive and ambiguous time, we must hold on to the core value of the human element. We’re still in the very beginning of the proliferation of AI into the work for higher education, so let us stay grounded and look for the opportunities to continue to grow how we teach, connect and support our students.