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Charting ASU's future: Navigating OpenAI's first partnership in higher education

The collaboration between ASU and OpenAI seeks to redefine the future of education, ASU faculty across fields of study discuss its potential and problems


"The ASU-OpenAI partnership marks a pioneering step towards integrating AI in education, setting the stage for transformative potential and ethical exploration."

The announcement of the partnership between ASU and OpenAI has sparked a flurry of anticipation and concern among faculty and students alike, revealing a spectrum of opinions on the future of AI in education.

Announced on Jan. 18, the partnership did not contain initial implementation details, except for the AI Innovation Challenge directed towards ASU faculty beginning Feb 1. Despite this, not all faculty members feel adequately informed.

Read more: ASU announces first partnership between OpenAI and a university

"It's a little bit hard to comment," said Emma Frow, associate professor for ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering. "It feels like there's very little information that's presented."

"I don't know much about it," said Ben Hurlbut, associate professor at ASU's School of Life Sciences and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. "I've read a couple of articles that describe basically that it's the sort of partnership to explore how (AI) can be incorporated into education, (specifically) more into research use in university settings. But that's about all I know."

Others outside of the STEM fields echo this uncertainty, feeling that the promising announcement leaves many questions unanswered. 

"(To) be honest with you, I didn't do a lot of research on it," Mitchell Jackson, a Pulitzer winner and professor of English and creative writing at ASU, said.

Even those proficient in the field of science struggle to imagine the practical aspect of the deal.

"It felt sensational," Frow said. "Then I read the releases and it felt like a business transaction."

"One has to ask the question of purpose," Hurlbut said. "Just because the tool exists, does that mean there's an imperative to make use of the tool?"

Beyond ASU's announcements, there are general concerns about AI's growing role in education.

"The worry is that one of the things that we do here at a university is to create the conditions in which we are all challenged to draw upon, to deepen and expand intelligence, individually and collectively," Hurlbut said. "This artificial intelligence (is) an algorithm designed to fool us. Its test of efficacy is whether it can produce something that looks plausible to a reader."

This leads to a deeper reflection on the purpose of integrating AI into education and highlights the risk of losing human intellectual engagement.

"I am worried that it becomes a substitute for critical thinking," Frow said. "If we let it substitute for critical thinking, then that's not going to help us build a better world."

Despite these concerns, the ASU-OpenAI partnership could be an opportunity for progress, given that it is cautiously handled.

"It will have a profound impact on education," Frow said. "I need to acknowledge that and then devote the time to thinking about how to work with it rather than work against it in the classroom."

Andrew Maynard, a professor for ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, previously taught a class on prompt engineering with ChatGPT and already has experience bringing AI into education.

"The challenge is finding ways of using AI in beneficial ways rather than ways which are not so helpful," Maynard said. "It helps match the learning environment, what helps students achieve what they're trying to achieve."

While some are concerned with academic integrity issues, Maynard believes understanding the source of cheating can lead to a cooperative relationship with AI in class.

"When you're creative and innovative with how you use ChatGPT, you can find ways (of) using it where students learn faster," Maynard said.

In regards to arts education, the situation is complicated by subjectivity and originality.

"Art is humanity, and AI will never be humanity," Jackson said. "It cannot be, by definition, humanity. Do I think that there will be good AI literature in the world? It's inevitable. Do I think that an OpenAI can create Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' or 'Song of Solomon'? No, I do not." 

Many, like Jackson, believe in the irreplaceable value of human creativity, even as the possibility of AI-written literature opens.

"Someone who is an early adopter who believes in this more than me is going to have to pave the way and show me ... how AI can be beneficial in doing what I do, which is to teach the craft of writing and to teach people how to think and be more human in the world," Jackson said.

In the meantime, the world of literature provides many ominous perspectives on AI's future.

"Humans have been writing about AI in science fiction ... and it never works out well," said Jackson.

According to Maynard, while there are concerns about AI, the dystopian perspectives of science fiction are inspired by human instincts and fears, not reality.

"It's very unlikely that we're going to have some of these dystopian futures," Maynard said. "We are projecting human emotions and behaviors on a machine that is not human. I don't think that it follows that the machines are going to behave like humans." 

This serves as a reminder of the cultural backdrop against which the AI discourse unfolds and spotlights the enduring human fascination regarding the boundaries of technological progress.

These concerns now weigh on ASU, which is responsible for guiding AI into the future of higher education. Naturally, this puts a great emphasis on the details of the partnership. However, strategies for implementation are still in progress.

"The agreement with OpenAI for ChatGPT Enterprise is that we're doing this challenge process around researchers submitting applications ... to potentially use the OpenAI Enterprise for research purposes," said Elizabeth Reilley, ASU's executive director of AI Acceleration and Enterprise Technology.

Considering the potential impact of these uses, ASU will carefully examine each proposal against its values of innovation.

"The proposals are going to be evaluated on several different components, including alignment with the ASU charter, supporting student success and having a positive societal impact," Reilley said. "We're also evaluating the proposals on the alignment to principled innovation ... it's extremely important for us to consider the ethics of AI."

While the selection process is not public, the proposals that receive AI support will be announced.

"We'll be sharing out publicly many of the different use cases that are pursued, that we approved through this process and are accepted through this request for proposals process," said Reilley. "This first round of proposals is for faculty and staff ... and then we'll likely in a future round have students be able to engage."

It is unknown when exactly students will be able to participate in this process.

"OpenAI is part of the world, and they will benefit from that, along with others," Reilley said. "We're all about creating knowledge to help us all as a society and as humanity to move forward in thoughtful ways."

The ASU-OpenAI partnership marks a pioneering step towards integrating AI in education, setting the stage for transformative potential and ethical exploration. As this bold initiative unfolds, its impact on the academic landscape and ethical boundaries remains an open question, awaiting the test of time to reveal the true extent of its influence on learning and creativity.

Edited by River Graziano, Walker Smith and Caera Learmonth.

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