On November 30, 2022, OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a program designed to mimic human intelligence. Within weeks of its release, the program amassed an unprecedented 100 million users, setting a new record for the fastest technology to reach this milestone. This remarkable achievement sent shockwaves throughout the education sector, especially among teachers in schools and colleges.
One might assume that educators who teach others about the disruptive power of technologies, such as printing presses or steam engines, would be well-equipped to face the challenges posed by the new disruptive AI technology. However, when these traditional custodians of learning were suddenly confronted with a technology capable of learning and generating knowledge, they were primarily defensive and unprepared. Some tried to ban it on their networks, while others declared the program inaccurate and inadequate.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the educational sector is not best prepared for such an innovation. Higher education has not been particularly embracive to new technologies, at least not since the invention of the internet. For example, a typical college classroom today does not appear much different from one in the last century; they both revolve around a center-staged professor lecturing to a few-rows-deep audience. This approach, known as teacher-centered learning, focuses primarily on information transfer from teacher to student. Some of the most popular professors, such as Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky and Harvard’s Steven Pinker, demonstrate these methods in countless YouTube videos. Both Sapolsky and Pinker hold the floor for the entire time while the students listen and take notes. Occasionally, an electronic slide with bullet-point text appears in the lecture, the digital equivalent of chalk-writing on the blackboard. Students in these classes study for multiple-choice exams from well-established textbooks in a similar way to their peers for the last century. It seems as if the inventions of the internet, mobile phones, social media, let alone ChatGPT have yet to make substantial change in these classrooms.
Not dissimilar are the college classrooms of smaller, liberal arts colleges. Though a bit more learner-centered and interactive, technology does not play a significant role in those classrooms either. Sure, every classroom is equipped with a computer projecting screen, but such a setup is primarily used as a replacement for handwriting on the chalkboard, a long way off from the full utilization of all the powers of the internet. A bit more open to technology are the administrative and student life departments. They have fully turned to online sources, databases, and social media in recruitment and residential life. For example, language-learning apps like Duolingo are now used instead of the TOEFL test for admissions of foreign students, but not so much by language professors. While professors may insist that students turn off social media in the classroom, admission officers cannot wait to connect with prospective students on it.
Now that ChatGPT emerged, many in the AI community feel they have been vindicated by their bold predictions about smart machines, although the arrival of such machines was anticipated further down the road. Based on their predictions, it was only a matter of time before digital technology brought profound change to the way humans interact with knowledge and information. Consequently, education and learning were due for a revolution. The launch of ChatGPT has seemingly accelerated the need for a question: What does the higher education system look like in a future dominated by technology?
One safe answer is that we ought to do things differently, though, there is no consensus on what “doing things differently” means. Some argue for buttressing the best of Enlightenment accomplishments (scientific method and reasoning), while others insist on teaching the four Cs skills (communication, creativity, critical thinking and cooperation). However, these solutions come from an era before technologies like big data, search, and algorithms raised concerns that artificial intelligence, like ChatGPT, will challenge the capacity of human cognition. Therefore, the first step might be to accept the inevitability of technological advancement and to embrace collaboration with technology and robots (cobotics) as to combine the strengths of both humans and technologies.
The question of how to incorporate digital technology into traditional human knowledge acquisition is essential to the future of universities. Neil Postman’s[i] idea that we should understand new technologies as “the things we think with” can be helpful in this regard. According to Postman, the shift from “thinking with language” to “thinking with print” brought along enormous advantages. This means that technology should not be seen as a passive instrument, but rather as a form of knowledge that can augment human intelligence. Therefore, the education of the future needs to consider how to teach students to think with technologies like AI and ChatGPT.
Historically, universities have focused on teaching students to think with printed texts. However, with the digitization of texts, it is now possible to treat them as “live” texts that augment traditional human skills. In social psychology, the concept of the “extended self” allows us to think of objects like technology as an auxiliary amplification of natural abilities, and pedagogy should consider how to make this technological self an ally in learning.
Digital technologies have many comparative advantages, including unlimited memory, abundant and diverse content, rapid information recall, democratization of information and speech, collective and placeless potential for action, and more. The question for the university of the future is how to teach in an environment that combines technological advantages with distinct human strengths.
To encourage collaborative brain-technology learning, modern classrooms should create an environment where problems can be solved using both neurons and bits. A call to turn off phones and computers while in class should be considered outdated because very few situations in the real world forbid the use of smart technology in problem-solving. Assignments should resemble conditions that students will face in life and the workplace, where screens and tech are ubiquitous. Therefore, it is outdated to prepare students to solve problems without technology like ChatGPT. In my own classroom, all tests and assignments are open-book and Internet-use encouraged because problem-solving with technology mimics real-life conditions.
If the strength of technology is boundless in memory, it might be useful to learn how to make connections and interact with these external repositories of content efficiently. While we will always need to carry some content in our cerebral cortex, we can understand digital memory as supplementary, like “the cloud” to our personal computer. Therefore, it becomes more important to focus on memorizing core concepts and rapidly connecting to peripheral or detailed tangents of such concepts digitally. Traditional classroom exams often test memorization, and rarely encourage application or interpretation of the content or the use of external memory. This messaging can lead students to think that success is only about dutifully absorbing and recalling teacher’s words, rather than making mental connections to other boundless resources. In my classroom exams, I no longer test for memorization of content. I encourage students to load the content in their notes and their screens, and I ask that they apply it to a problem or a situation.
Additionally, technology has transformed the way we teach and learn by eliminating the constraints of time and space. Traditional universities used to rely on physical attendance in a common space at a specific time to deliver information to all students. However, with the advent of technology, teaching and learning can occur anytime, anywhere. With the help of technology, knowledge can be captured and delivered to any Wi-Fi enabled device, making it accessible to learners at all times. This flexibility has been made possible by new technologies that enable teaching to occur from anywhere and learners to control the pace of their studies. The “flipped classroom” teaching model is an example of how I use technology as an advantage. In this model, content is delivered as homework, and practice is conducted in class. Learners can also record, replay, and repurpose lectures, presentations, and asynchronous videos to suit their learning style. However, if physical presence is required, we must take full advantage of such situations. In other words, we have to reconsider how we think about physical space in response to omnipresent technology.
Another strength of technology is its multi-mediality. The internet has not only digitized printed books but has also converged all previous media technologies such as print, photography, audio, and video, making knowledge available in various formats and genres. For example, podcasts and audio books are now perceived as the most immersive media formats and 63% of US adults now say that they like listening more than reading. Therefore, formal education and lifelong learning must provide multiple paths of understanding for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Resources such as Khan Academy, specialized podcasts, Ted Talks, or audio versions of long articles offer various paths to learning in multiple ways.
However, technology contains multitudes of weaknesses which have been documented and analyzed in recent years, first in academia and now even in popular media. Algorithmic biases,[ii] digital surveillance,[iii] fake news,[iv] and attention capture[v] are just some of the recognized harms of technology. Society so deeply entangled with technology must resolve its pitfalls that are downgrading our humanity. Solutions to these problems are likely to come from long-term policy reforms, industry improvements, and public advocacy. But in the meantime, the best quick fixes must come from the classroom– teach students to recognize the drawbacks of technology in order to avoid being harmed by it. For the moment, leaning on some of our human strengths (deliberative reasoning, info and data literacy, mindfulness, etc.) should serve as a temporary antidote to technology ills.
Colleges must embrace technology as a platform upon which a new college can be built, one that is compatible with the latest technological advancements. The future of college education should be central to all colleges that want to stay relevant and current. Many institutions are already undergoing reviews of their general education curricula and major requirements. However, if they fail to embrace technology and prepare for a technologically-dominated society, they are not preparing students for the future. Although there is no consensus on the best way to prepare for the future, the ‘thinking with technology’ approach should be considered. This approach requires new pedagogical practices and may require rethinking familiar teacher-centered customs. Nonetheless, colleges must adapt to technology to prepare students for a future where technology is likely to dominate.
Vladimir Bratic, PhD, is an associate professor of communication studies at Hollins University. Bratic has published 22 articles in academic journals, books, and online publications, most of them on the subject of media contribution to peace.
[i] Postman, N. (2010). Amusing ourselves to death. Penguin.
[ii] O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York: Crown Publishers.
[iii] Zuboff, S., & Schwandt, K. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. Profile Books.
[iv] Howard, P (2020) Lie Machines: How to Save Democracy from Troll Armies, Deceitful Robots, Junk News Operations and Political Operatives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
[v] Pang, A. S.-K. (2013). The distraction addiction: Getting the information you need and the communication you want without enraging your family, annoying your colleagues, and destroying your soul. New York: Little, Brown.