‘Embrace AI, don’t run from it in fear,’ universities told

One of the strongest criticisms levelled at ChatGPT when it burst onto the scene in November 2022 was that it would enable students to rely on it to write assignments for them.

Some educational institutions initially reacted by banning the tool outright, and others have since welcomed the development of software able to spot its use in work turned in by students.

However, the case is increasingly being made for putting generative artificial intelligence (AI) to positive use in education. Arguments along this line were made at the third annual academic summit of Honoris United Universities, a pan-African group of private higher education institutions, held in Cape Town recently.

“New developments in the digital world are posing challenges but also opportunities to our sector. It’s not the technology itself that’s the issue, but people and processes. That’s why universities all over the world – from MIT and Harvard to Oxford and Cambridge – are building teams focused on digital transformation,” Melindi Britz, the managing director of the group’s new digital division, told delegates.

She was backed up by a colleague, Su Little, academic manager of the online department of Red & Yellow Creative School of Business: “We are launching a cross-campus task team to lead the charge for Al in education.

“We are going to talk with each other about how best to leverage AI across our campuses because we do need to pool ideas and resources so that we can establish something phenomenal that will benefit all.”

Africa’s first AI chatbot for students

A presentation by Meriem Somai, chief digital and information officer of the Université Centrale Group (UCG), a network of four post-secondary education institutions in Tunisia, caused quite a stir at the summit. She announced that UCG had created Africa’s first customised AI student chatbot running on ChatGPT.

“It’s called Najeh, which means ‘successful’ in Arabic, and it can assist our students in any language, supporting personalised learning by them and providing intelligent tutoring to them. For our universities, it enables data-driven decision-making,” Somai said.

AI chatbots are different from traditional chatbots, which rely on predefined rules and scripted responses. Generative AI uses deep learning to create responses that mimic human conversation with natural language.

Najeh was built by UCG software engineers, using an application programming interface (API) to tap directly into ChatGPT-4, OpenAI’s most advanced language model, and was then integrated into UCG’S student portal as a mobile app.

“We have seen students using it as a research assistant to help with assignments, as a tutor to pose mock examination questions, as a guidance counsellor to help draft a cover letter to apply for an internship, even to provide personal support on how to manage their time effectively.”

The multitalented bot has been available to UCG students 24/7 since it was launched on 24 April.

“The adoption of the tool has been spectacular. We are seeing individual usage rates of 7.6 interactions per week and above, which means every student is using Najeh at least once a day,” Somai said.

In a survey of more than 4,000 students, UCG established that 86% of respondents found Najeh easy to use, 99% were “satisfied” and “extremely satisfied” with their experience, and 100% said they would recommend it to other students.

This ties in with a survey conducted by BestColleges in March, which found that 43% of college students in the United States have used ChatGPT or a similar AI application, and 61% think these tools will become the new normal.

“ChatGPT is transforming the learning process. It is forcing institutions to rethink the education they provide to students, and to remodel it. Generative AI will soon become as ubiquitous as mobile phones are today,” Somai told University World News in an interview at the summit.

Challenges and solutions

However, that does not mean the technology is faultless.

“Challenges include plagiarism, overreliance by students, inaccurate information being provided and privacy concerns. But these are all things we can deal with,” Somai added.

“The first step for institutions is to put policies in place, providing guidance to students and lecturers about appropriate use. This must be backed up with training, not just about how a particular app works but to create awareness that generative AI is a tool to supplement human efforts, not to replace it.”

Little concurred: “We must empower our students with a thorough understanding of how to use these tools. As education providers, we must put up the guard rails now as to how we use AI ethically, with integrity.”

AI tools for lecturers

Her presentation, ‘How virtual worlds are revolutionising education’, showed that students are not the only ones using generative AI in the classroom – lecturers are finding applications for it as well.

There are tools that can help lecturers mark and grade papers, compile a slide deck, as well as transcribe lectures to text – to name a few.

“You can even get an avatar to present your classes for you,” Little said, with reference to a tool called Synthesia, recently used by Wall Street Journal reporter Joanna Stern to create a TikTok video presented by a computer-generated version of herself.

“It saved me some time – I did not have to do my hair and make-up, put on special clothes, or learn my lines. OK, viewers quickly spotted that my avatar never moved her arms, that her movements didn’t always match the audio, and that she had little facial expression. But, already, it’s better than an animated character, and it will improve,” she says in a video played at the summit.

“Now, I’m not saying that we are going to replace ourselves with these kinds of systems. But AI can save us time and enrich the education we provide,” Little told delegates.

HE ‘fundamentally changing’

“We need to acknowledge that higher education is fundamentally changing. We have to prepare for students coming out of school who have never known a world without the internet, unlike some of us.

“Al today is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of its potential. However, we should not run from it in fear but put it to positive use.

“We should prepare for the disruption of education proactively and collaboratively. We must learn to embrace Al through trial and error, and do so very quickly – as fast as it learns!”