CASPER — When OpenAI’s ChatGPT burst into public view last fall, it sent ripples through higher education in Wyoming. The state’s community colleges and the University of Wyoming quickly had to reckon with a technology that could write essays and answer assignments.
Action from UW was swift. President Ed Seidel set up an Artificial Intelligence Chatbots Working Group that weeks later delivered a set of recommendations, including an update to the school’s cheating policies.
The university also left the question of artificial intelligence open-ended, allowing teachers to decide if and how they want to use the technology.
Casper College and Central Wyoming College have so far refrained from taking schoolwide steps, instead relying on teachers to dictate the technology in their classrooms while building broader conversations around artificial intelligence.
For those in higher education, the issue of artificial intelligence is nuanced. It is neither good nor bad. It is not the end of education, nor is it a lasting replacement for learning.
But as Wyoming’s university and community colleges begin to grapple with artificial intelligence, common sources of optimism and worries are beginning to emerge.
Reacting to new technologyOf the three schools, UW has fielded the strongest institutional response.
In January, Seidel announced the Artificial Intelligence Chatbots Working Group just a few months after OpenAI released ChatGPT.
He asked the group to consider any policy changes and other measures the university might need to take in light of ChatGPT and other “chatbots,” which can answer complex questions and simulate humanlike conversations using computer algorithms trained to recognize, summarize and predict words and text.
A team of faculty led by Anne Alexander, UW’s vice provost for strategic planning and initiatives, and Renée Laegreid, the chair of the UW Faculty Senate and a professor of history, produced a report just three weeks later.
Among its recommendations, the group suggested the school update its student academic dishonesty and cheating policies to ban the “unpermitted use” of artificial intelligence.
While an acknowledgement of the potential risks that the technology poses, it also left the decision to teachers. They would be the ones to decide if ChatGPT and artificial intelligence would be permitted in their classrooms. That decision stemmed, in part, from the recognition from those in the working group that artificial intelligence has benefits alongside drawbacks.
“It’s like saying that a calculator is bad. It’s like saying that a browser is bad. It’s like saying that search engines are bad. They’re not. They’re just tools,” said Alexander, who is also an economics professor. “We wanted it to make it clear at the very outset that there’s not going to be a right answer for UW and probably not for higher ed.”
In the place of a blanket policy, UW has leaned on the Ellbogen Center for Teaching and Learning and faculty like Rick Fisher, who directs Communication Across the Curriculum, a branch of the university that provides guidance and support for teachers, to hold workshops and discussions that educate faculty about the technology.
In turn, those teachers can decide how they want to approach artificial intelligence in their courses, sanctioning its use or banning it.
Casper College and Central Wyoming College have taken similar approaches.
They have not convened working groups or instituted policy changes, but their faculty have begun to hold discussions about the technology.
“We, as a college, looked to them to help guide us through the next step based on what they wanted,” said Kathy Wells, vice president for academic affairs at Central Wyoming College. “They are the frontline.”
For both colleges, teachers have been the decision makers. They have decided how the technology will be used on a case-by-case basis. Their response has been mixed, as it has at UW.
In areas like the visual arts and technical education, concerns among faculty have been minimal, Wells said. The counter has been online courses and those heavy on writing, where language-based artificial intelligence has the power to upend learning.
Casper College’s administration and its faculty have only begun to work through some of the pressing questions that will influence how artificial intelligence will or will not be used in the classroom. It’s not just a question of whether technology will be used, but also the extent to which it will be, said Brandon Kosine, Casper College’s vice president of academic affairs.
“We’re going to have to work with the speed of industry to make sure that we’re finding that balance with them, so that we’re not overstepping or under-stepping our industry partners,” Kosine said. “That goes for transfer students, too.”
Optimism and worriesIf there’s one thing that keeps higher education teachers and curriculum leaders up at night, it’s student learning.
Suffice it to say, artificial intelligence will have an impact. But what that will be in Wyoming higher education remains to be seen. The first few months of national media coverage following the release of ChatGPT have focused on its detriment to education.
An associate dean at Oregon State University wrote an opinion piece in the digital publication Inside Higher Ed that said ChatGPT was a “crisis” for education.
Others have compared artificial intelligence to a plague or releasing a genie from a bottle.
Humans have consistently responded to new technological developments in language with fear, said Fisher, who also teaches English and writing at UW. Pencils with erasers were a scourge in Henry David Thoreau’s time.
“When writing was invented, there were the same critiques in some ways that we’re having now,” Fisher said. “Writing is its own form of technology, and I think that we’ve always been afraid of what we set outside our own brains.”
Though it removes some of the thinking, artificial intelligence also has the potential to improve higher education, most notably by advancing equity in learning.
Think about dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult for a student to read and often adds challenges to writing.
“If you are a student with dyslexia or any other kind of learning challenge — if you’re unable to take a thought and turn it into something cogent that’s very compelling to read — oh my gosh, what a great starting point?” Alexander said.
ChatGPT and artificial intelligence could boost STEM education, helping students to code and visualize their research projects. And for teachers, it could mean greater efficiency in administrative tasks and could move instruction toward more challenging subjects.
Yet, those leading the way at the state’s university and community colleges find more concerns than clear benefits.
Preparing for a workshop, Fisher asked ChatGPT to pull up citations about best practices in education design. It came up with citations that looked right with real authors and journals, but fake titles.
“It also generated a one-sentence summary of the article that did not exist in the world,” Fisher said. “That’s a level of fabrication that seems problematic.”
For Fisher, it goes deeper. Language is more than communication, he said. It’s how we process information, how we work through ideas and difficult subjects; learning and language go hand in hand. A technology that could change how we use and understand language has the potential to change how we learn.
“The role of language in education is really, really important beyond just as a way for students to demonstrate what they know,” Fisher said. “That’s the exciting opportunity and threat of this moment is having to be confronted with the sort of rethinking and reworking of some of the things that we’ve maybe implicitly believed or understood about language.”
There are other issues besides cheating, such as intellectual property rights and information literacy since current chatbots have a habit of being inaccurate.
As a licensed counselor and the former dean for the Casper College’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Kosine worries about the ethical implications, the unintended consequences and the responsible use of artificial intelligence in higher education.
Kosine said that the rise of ChatGPT only makes the college’s teaching of critical thinking and other essential skills more important.
“At the end of the day, I think that we have to keep doing what we do — try to teach students to love learning, so that they don’t want to rely on technology to do the learning or the output for them,” he said.