Artificial Intelligence spells the end of instrumentalist accounts of higher education – CogitAlt Colloquium

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Rhodes University’s Director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies, Professor Sioux McKenna.
Rhodes University’s Director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies, Professor Sioux McKenna.

Rhodes University’s Director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies, Professor Sioux McKenna, was one of ten panelists comprising academics and Chief Executive Officers of tech companies at the latest CogitAIt Colloquium. The Colloquium was held on Tuesday, 18 April 2023, and it looked at the applications of emerging technologies in education, research, and training. 

While most of the presentations focused on the affordances of technology, Professor McKenna argued that the advent of ChatGPT and other Large Language Model programs has the potential to spell the end of instrumentalist understandings of higher education.

“If artificial intelligence can more speedily and efficiently complete all the tasks we set for students and if the role of the university is simply to verify the completion of these tasks, then the entire currency of the university qualification collapses,” argued Professor McKenna.  

She went on to argue that the short-sighted response by many universities was to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify students who might be using AI in their work. In arguing that higher education is not simply about credentialing, skills acquisition, or training, Professor McKenna suggested that the real purpose of an undergraduate curriculum was for students to enjoy a transformative relationship with the knowledge that changes their understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

She quoted Spider-Man from Marvel Comics, who said: “With great power comes great responsibility,” and suggested that universities need to nurture students’ responsibilities as critical citizens alongside nurturing their access to powerful knowledge. She said that in this understanding of higher education, AI is a potential tool for fostering such transformative relationships. 

However, Professor McKenna also cautioned that higher education institutions also need to ask questions about how AI might constrain or corrupt such transformative relationships.

She suggested that such understandings of higher education shift the question from ‘How will we catch students using artificial intelligence so that we can punish them?’ to ‘How does this assessment build students’ relationship to knowledge?’ and ‘How might artificial intelligence enable or constrain this?’

Professor McKenna indicated that in every university, there are pockets of passionate people who are already engaged in such endeavours. “These academics ignite in their students a desire for access to powerful knowledge that outstrips the value of any piece of paper that a university can provide. These academics are asking how best to respond to AI using an approach that helps build trust, belonging, and transformative relationships, rather than mistrust and suspicion,” she concluded.