The first step is to understand AI– what it is, and what it isn’t. How deeply you want to dive into the details is up to you, but take it far enough to understand that AI uses machine processing and learning to complete tasks previously associated with human intelligence. AI can now automate text and image generating processes. It does not do so by “thinking” but by copying and recombining previously absorbed text input in microseconds. It’s learned the ways that text makes sense to us from the text we’ve already written. AI doesn’t have new ideas, but it creates new text passages and images. What does this mean? It’s a progression of the idea that once a technology exists, it keeps getting faster and more powerful. You’ve known for a while that your phone can predict what you’re likely to say in a text to your mom, or that you’re likely to want to see the faces in a picture more clearly. Your email client thinks it knows how to finish your sentence in a message to a parent; how often is it right? AI “creates” text based on what it finds with its bots, which means that it can be grievously wrong, full of error and prejudice, and sometimes perfectly correct and “worthy of a four” on an exam. One of many great tutorials written with educators in mind is this one from Ditch That Textbook.
The big picture is that now AI is coming for “intellectual professions” just as mechanization and robotics replaced humans in manufacturing. Is this a good thing? Maybe. Calculators enable math-heavy professions to focus on bigger problems by handling number crunching. AI can generate the “routine creativity” elements of work done by people who draft reports or analyze data in their professions. What this means for the world of work is fascinating (and beyond the scope of this post)….and yet that’s the world of work our current students will be entering. So, Academic Leader, get your head around AI, if for no other reason than the chances are that you’ll be reading AI-generated text sooner rather than later.
After you’ve looked around a bit, it’s time to focus inward and lead your community in forging the path forward–which is another competency for Academic Leaders: make decisions with resolve and empathy. A caution: don’t focus on this as an academic integrity issue, but recognize AI for what it is, a powerful tool rapidly on its way to being ubiquitous. What are your school’s existing values and culture around assistive technology? What are the exact competencies that assignments and assessments are evaluating and how well do they do it? If these haven’t been clarified at your school, there’s work to do, and as is almost always the case, you’ll need to differentiate your “right now” needs from the longer term.
For those “right now” issues, you probably have teachers who are looking at next week’s assignments and realizing that AI can now turn in perfectly reasonable responses. Worse, they’ve got major papers and semester assessments that now need interrogation. What’s the immediate solution? One consideration is to shift what happens during in-class and out-of-class time. There are calls for teachers to only accept hand-written work that is completed under the watchful eyes of an adult; is that realistic or desirable in your community? Other voices are suggesting that pedagogy should be reconsidered so that students examine or critique the AI-generated response as part of their learning. Many wonder how teachers can design assignments so that the conversations and feedback around writing are more visible and present. No matter what approach, your school will need to teach students about AI, because they’ll certainly be learning about it from somewhere, and you want your values to be part of that conversation.
Teachers have questions, and Academic Leaders can help them arrive at answers by drawing upon the expertise of those who have been through some of this thinking already. You have internal experts on campus. Engage with your world languages department leader and ask how they’ve handled the development of translation software that operates in real-time. (And maybe ask how they’re planning to handle voice-mimicking AI, too.) Math leaders have pretty significant experience managing the intentional use of problem-solving technology tools! Other in-house experts undoubtedly include library/media specialists, the technology team, digital arts, and learning support staff. Gather the right folks around a table (real or virtual) and have a practical conversation about what to do right now and what to postpone for a thoughtful professional exercise later this spring/summer. Don’t forget the school’s communications team–AI text and image generation is exploding in their world, too. And you can certainly bet the college counselors are talking about AI-generated essays!
Once you have a plan, it’s time to put another one of our competencies into action: communicate effectively across multiple domains. In your voice, share and clarify how you’ve been researching AI, along with your expectations, understandings, plans, and yes, penalties. Share that this is work in progress, and you’re watching the technology evolve. You certainly learned how to communicate during an evolving landscape over the last few years– use that competency now. Conduct demos for those who need or request them so that they can build their own understanding of AI. Include uses such as “write an email to a parent or guardian about a student’s successful project.” Share links to articles you found helpful, but make sure your primary communications pieces (emails, videos) are authentic to your voice and community.
You’ve got this!
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)