The Charger Blog

University Faculty Discuss Roles of Professors and Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Faculty from myriad disciplines recently came together to discuss how they can best support students while addressing the challenges presented by AI. They also proposed creating a task force to further ensure they offer a robust learning experience and maximize the opportunities created by AI.

December 18, 2023

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

The Charger statue at the University of New Haven.
The Charger statue at the University of New Haven.

For Bruno Barreto de Góes, Ph.D., artificial intelligence is something he’s been thinking about and exploring. He’s used it as a tool to aid him as an educator, he’s experimented with different versions of ChatGPT, and he’s considered the impact AI will have on higher education.

Dr. Barreto de Góes recently co-hosted a Center for Teaching Excellence-sponsored conversation that brought together faculty from across the University to discuss their role as AI continues to evolve and present unprecedented questions, challenges, and opportunities. He presented several important questions for his colleagues to consider – including how they will remain relevant in an educational system where anyone has access to such technologies and how faculty will continue to add value to future students.

While he says AI does a “nice job of helping him” with tasks such as grading assignments, he does not believe in an all or nothing approach to AI. He acknowledges that the technology is here to stay – and that it can be an asset to learners and teachers alike.

“I look at this in terms of substitutes and complements,” said Barreto de Góes, an assistant professor of management. “While AI is a disrupter to us, I believe it can be a complement. We need to understand what we’re doing, and we need to teach our students to use this technology in an ethical and smart way.”

‘Students can’t gain hands-on experience from AI’

Conversations about AI have skyrocketed since the launch of ChatGPT last year – along with the technology’s capabilities. Dr. Barreto de Góes explained that AI could reach human-level capabilities sooner than originally expected. While technology increases exponentially, AI increases at a rate twice as fast.

Similarly, widespread use of the technology has also increased faster than many had expected. Dr. Barreto de Góes explained that while some technology, such as Facebook and Netflix, took years to achieve widespread popularity, ChatGPT had one hundred million users in just two months.

As its capabilities and use have increased, so too have concerns about AI replacing jobs in myriad industries. April Yoder, Ph.D., who co-hosted the discussion with Dr. Barreto de Góes, recently saw a post on LinkedIn that captured her attention. An educator she follows shared a Reddit post from a student claiming they’d replaced their chemistry professor with AI. But Dr. Yoder wondered, did they really?

“The student uploaded the course material, but who curated that? The chemistry professor,” said Dr. Yoder, an associate professor of history. “Education is a human experience. Our value is, in part, in curating knowledge.”

The event, held as a conversation rather than a panel, encouraged faculty to share their thoughts on the technology, as well as how they might approach the challenges and opportunities that AI presents. One professor encouraged faculty to consider AI to be a tool in their toolbox, likening it to calculators when they were first gaining popularity as well as resistance. Several faculty members said that while AI might offer important tools for students, such as personalized tutoring, it can’t teach them certain skills that faculty can.

“In the sciences, students can’t gain hands-on experience from AI,” explained Nikolas Stasulli, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University’s Biology and Environmental Science Department. “That’s our job, to give students hands-on experience. Being book smart won’t get you a job. The hands-on experience and opportunity to ask novel questions is so important.”

Bruno Barreto de Góes, Ph.D., speaks to his fellow Chargers about AI.
Bruno Barreto de Góes, Ph.D., speaks to his fellow Chargers about AI.
‘Aligned with our mission’

While AI might democratize education in some ways and provide students with a way to receive tutoring free of charge, many faculty members posited that the technology only goes so far. Attending a university would still offer students so many critical opportunities that they could never get from AI.

“If students decide to get their education from AI, who keeps them on track?” asked Michael Rossi, Ph.D., associate dean for faculty and curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences. “What keeps a learner on track is the human element, someone they have a relationship with. AI won’t do that.”

Educators say that one of the most critical elements of a university education, something that AI cannot offer, is community. Sheahon Zenger, Ph.D., interim president of the University, says that educators have already seen this, though through the lens of a very different disrupter.

“During COVID, many people worried that everyone would go online and never go back to their universities,” he said. “Yet so many students hated that and couldn’t wait to come back. Our numbers are up. We’re a purpose-driven university, and we offer a social experience. We all will still matter, even with AI.”

Committed to serving students and supporting faculty, Dr. Zenger asked for a think tank to be created to further explore AI’s impact on education at the University. He wants students to know why this matters, and he acknowledges that many of students are hungry to learn more about it.

For Dr. Barreto de Góes, AI has whetted his appetite for considering his own role as an educator. He supported the idea of creating a think tank, and he’s already begun to reimagine what his classes might look like as AI gains an ever-greater foothold in education. While he believes it might enhance a student’s explicit or codified knowledge, he is confident he can continue to support students’ tacit knowledge acquisition through experiential education.

“Right now, students earn three credits for a class and one for their lab,” he said. “I think that will flip with AI, emphasizing the lab experience. I’m already doing that. I’m putting my lectures online and using my class time for hands-on projects – that’s my ‘lab.’ The idea of experiential learning is aligned with our mission and our DNA at the University of New Haven.”