Embracing the Future Now: Instructors and Artificial Intelligence

A picture of a brain using futuristic computer wiring. Artist credit: Steve Johnson.

Published September 20, 2023

Alarm bells are sounding about a new danger lurking in the halls of academia. Misunderstood and operating in the shadows, it is assumed to be drawing students into its clutches with the promise of easier, less time-consuming schoolwork. It asks us what we need and then supplies the fix. What is this menace? Artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence (AI) does not necessarily deserve this reputation. Of course, we must remain vigilant about its potential misuse. Instructors should examine their course design and create authentic assessments whereby students demonstrate their learning in ways where AI would be of little or no benefit. An earlier post on the  CATT Blog examined students’ use of artificial intelligence (AI) and strategies for safeguarding academic integrity.

For all that is written about students' use of AI, far less focus has been paid to how instructors can use it. Faculty members are pulled in many directions between their teaching, research, service to the university and community, and personal lives. My goal in writing this post is to show you that AI isn’t scary and that you can use it to bring some efficiency to your teaching.

Intelligent Course Design

As a subject matter expert, it is easy to take for granted how much you know about a topic and assume you do not need to cover it in great detail. AI can help to identify common pitfalls for novice learners. Or maybe you aren’t sure how to organize a specific lesson or how to connect one unit to another. Perhaps you aren’t totally happy with the textbook for your course and want to find additional resources – across a variety of media formats – to share with your students. You can ask an AI platform such as ChatGPT to help you out. Take a look at my query below:

Me: I want to teach first-year undergraduate students about sustainability. My course is six weeks long and I want to focus on one topic each of the first five weeks. The sixth week will wrap up the course and tie in the first five weeks. What topics should I cover? What order should they follow and why?

ChatGPT: When designing a course on sustainability for first-year undergraduate students, here is a suggested order and topics for the six-week duration:

Week 1: Introduction to Sustainability

Start the course by providing an overview of sustainability, its definition, and its importance in various domains (environmental, social, economic). Introduce key concepts such as the three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social, economic) and systems thinking to help students understand the interconnectedness of sustainability issues.

Week 2: Environmental Sustainability

Focus on environmental sustainability, exploring topics such as climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and pollution. Discuss the impacts of human activities on the environment and emphasize the need for sustainable practices to mitigate these issues. Introduce sustainable development goals related to environmental sustainability.

Week 3: Social Sustainability

Shift the focus to social sustainability, covering topics such as social justice, equity, human rights, and community development. Discuss the intersectionality of sustainability issues with social dimensions, including poverty, inequality, and access to basic needs like food, water, and education. Highlight the importance of inclusive and equitable solutions for sustainable development.

Week 4: Economic Sustainability

Examine economic sustainability, addressing topics such as sustainable business practices, circular economy, responsible consumption and production, and green entrepreneurship. Explore the relationship between economic growth and environmental/social impacts and introduce strategies for integrating sustainability into business models and economic systems.

Week 5: Sustainable Solutions and Innovations

Highlight innovative solutions and practices addressing sustainability challenges. Explore examples of sustainable technologies, renewable energy, sustainable transportation, waste management, and sustainable urban planning. Showcase case studies and success stories to inspire students and foster their understanding of practical sustainability solutions.

Week 6: Integration and Reflection

In the final week, wrap up the course by integrating the topics covered in the first five weeks. Emphasize the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Encourage students to reflect on the course material, discuss the broader implications of sustainability, and consider how they can apply sustainable practices in their personal lives, future careers, and communities.

The suggested order allows for a logical progression, starting with an introduction to sustainability as a holistic concept and then delving into specific dimensions (environmental, social, economic) before exploring solutions and finally integrating the knowledge gained. This sequence helps students understand the complexity of sustainability issues, their interdependencies, and the need for a multidisciplinary approach to address them effectively.

ChatGPT generated in seconds what would have taken me hours or perhaps days. While the AI response might not be perfect, it helped me get started. Now, I can spend that “found time” taking ownership of the course design and personalizing its delivery, ensuring it follows educational best practices and alignment with the goals and outcomes of my class.

For example, for Week 2: Environmental Sustainability, I could focus on how humans are affecting the waterways of Buffalo or Western New York with a culminating assignment where students visit a nearby lake or river, document (and maybe clean up) garbage they find, and afterward submit a reflection on their experience, tying their reflection to the course content. The reflection could take whatever form the students want (e.g., a video, a poster, writing, etc.) so long as it addresses the criteria.

Providing students a choice in how they represent their learning is a core tenet of Universal Design for Learning and helps students take charge of their education. A similar model could be replicated in the other units, and, at the end of the course, the students would have learned about sustainability and developed a better appreciation for the environment in which they live and their impact on it.

Content Generation

Writing test questions can be challenging for even an experienced educator. I am always hesitant to share my “good” test questions on practice exams or for use during in-class problem-solving sessions. Likewise, case studies are a terrific way to engage students in active learning, but writing effective cases can be difficult, particularly if you doubt your creative writing prowess.

Following are a series of examples, showing how you can use AI as a question generator:

Multiple Choice Question

Me: Write a multiple-choice question for Week 2: Environmental Sustainability. Indicate the correct answer and provide a rationale on why it is right and the others wrong.

ChatGPT: Which of the following is a consequence of biodiversity loss?

A. Increased agricultural productivity

B. Enhanced ecosystem resilience

C. Decline in ecosystem services

D. Expansion of habitat range

Correct Answer: C. Decline in ecosystem services

Rationale: Biodiversity loss leads to a decline in ecosystem services, which are the benefits that ecosystems provide to humans, such as clean water, pollination, climate regulation, and nutrient cycling. While agriculture may experience short-term productivity gains with simplified ecosystems, the long-term consequences of biodiversity loss can disrupt ecosystem functioning. Habitat range expansion is not associated with biodiversity loss but rather the opposite – loss of habitat.

Short Answer Question

Me: Write a question about one of the sustainability topics in the earlier response. The question should work within a Socratic seminar format.

ChatGPT: Considering the topic of social sustainability, how does the concept of social justice intersect with sustainable development, and what are some potential challenges in achieving social sustainability goals?

This question prompts participants in the Socratic seminar to explore the relationship between social justice and sustainable development within the context of social sustainability. It encourages critical thinking and analysis of the challenges that may arise when striving to achieve social sustainability goals. Participants can discuss the importance of equity, human rights, and community well-being in sustainable development, as well as potential obstacles such as inequality, poverty, and systemic barriers that may hinder progress toward social sustainability.

Group Discussion Question

Me: Write a short (no more than five sentences) case study on industrial waste discharge. Include two prompts for group discussion.

ChatGPT: Case Study: Industrial Waste Discharge and Its Environmental Impacts

In a small coastal town, a large manufacturing facility has been operating for several years, producing various chemical products. Recently, concerns have arisen about the facility's waste management practices and the discharge of industrial waste into the nearby river. The local community has noticed changes in the river's water quality, including increased turbidity and a decline in fish populations. Environmental organizations are urging the company to take immediate action to mitigate the negative impacts.

Group Discussion Prompts:

1. Environmental Consequences: Discuss the potential environmental consequences of industrial waste discharge into the river. How might the release of pollutants affect aquatic life, water quality, and the overall ecosystem? What are the long-term implications for the river's biodiversity and the community that relies on it?

2. Corporate Responsibility and Solutions: As a group, brainstorm strategies that the manufacturing facility can implement to address the issue of industrial waste discharge. How can the company take responsibility for its actions and minimize its environmental impact? Consider both short-term measures to mitigate immediate harm and long-term sustainable solutions that promote environmental stewardship.

Again, the responses generated by the AI platform might not be perfect, but they’re a start. With the multiple-choice questions it generates, the correct answer is usually apparent without much thought because the distractors move in one direction (e.g., “increased”, “enhanced”, “expansion”) while the correct choice goes in the other (e.g., “decline).  So while their quality is probably insufficient for an exam, generative AI could quickly generate a large pool of practice questions to be used by students as a study aid or as discussion starters during a review session.

Learning Analytics and Student Success

AI can also predict learner success by analyzing data, identifying patterns, and extrapolating results. However, we must always be compliant with FERPA and handle student data in safe, legal, and ethical ways. Student information should never be shared on an AI platform. Luckily, Brightspace has a few tools you can use to gain insights into how our students are engaging in the course and bring awareness to instructors of students who are struggling before it is too late to get them back on the path to success.

Intelligent Agents

Using Brightspace Intelligent Agents, you create an “agent” to automate tracking student engagement and achievement, such as students’ lack of log-in activity or low quiz scores. You choose when and how often you want the agent to run and can even craft an email that is automatically sent to the student if they satisfy the criteria you set. Intelligent Agents can also be used to recognize students who are regularly engaging with the online component of your course or to congratulate them on a high quiz score.

Class Progress

The Class Progress tool allows you to visualize how students are progressing through your course. This dashboard gives you a visualization of four indicators: Content Completion Summary, Quiz Performance Summary, Grades Performance Summary, and System Access (Last 30 days). You can select a student’s name and take a deeper dive into their activity. These data are shown for each student, making it easy to find students for whom a supportive email from you, the instructor, might be necessary.

Insights Portal

Instructors have access to two Insights Dashboards: Engagement and Learner Engagement, which provide visualizations of course statistics to aid tracking and measuring engagement and monitoring student progress. These dashboards support student retention and success by identifying disengaged learners, allowing for early intervention while also providing instructors with insights into the behaviors of more successful learners.

As a learning designer, I do not write this post in fear of being replaced by AI. An understanding of pedagogy and the science of how people learn remains imperative due to the potential limitations wrought by a false confidence in AI-generated information. One must know the right questions to ask, how to analyze the veracity of the responses, and, most importantly, how to turn the words into action. The future is coming. AI is not going away. Educators should embrace AI, as was done with computers and the Internet, and not look away in fear or with an eye only turned toward potential student misuse. There is a lot of promise in an AI-assisted future.

I hope this post inspires you to give it a try! If you are already experimenting with AI in your course design, consider submitting a proposal for the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs AI Seed Funds. As always, the Teaching Transformation team is here to support you.