Artificial intelligence will change teaching, but not displace it

The development of text-generating artificial intelligence (AI) is proceeding at a rapid pace and will change teaching and research. How exactly, we can’t say yet. Universities are the focus of reflection on the new and should therefore not be afraid of innovation, but rather embrace it and put it to good use.

Text: Fritz Sager 2023/07/06

Our knowledge society is undergoing a disruptive transformation as a result of digitalization. To illustrate the depth of change, Harvard professor emeritus Shoshana Zuboff used her experience of having lightning strike her home as a metaphor. In the spreading fire, she closed doors and was still searching for photo albums she wanted to rescue, when a firefighter grabbed her and dragged her outside, whereupon the whole house exploded in a big fireball. Zuboff had been guided by her experience and therefore completely misjudged the threat. She thought she had time while in fact her life was in imminent danger. Everything that had been valid until the lightning struck was suddenly obsolete. She sees the same fundamental turning point in digitalization. What does this mean for university teaching? Was ChatGPT the lightning bolt that hit university teaching in November 2022? Are we going to lose the house?

People find answers

I’m inclined to say no. Few things lend themselves better to dystopia than the combination of “artificial” and “intelligence”. The human psyche puts fear above hope, and the greatest fear concerns any kind of loss. “Artificial” is the opposite of “human,” and “intelligence” implies “more intelligent than us”. The fear of AI is related to the potential loss of control by humans over machines. However, dystopia always assumes that people do not react to the innovation, but remain pure objects of development beyond their control.

But we are subjects, and history shows that we find answers to technical upheavals. The university is the ideal place to think about, test and reflect on these answers. This is where the best minds come together to advance society. The University of Bern has accordingly incorporated the topic of “People in Digital Transformation” as a central one in its 2030 Strategy, and this includes dealing with the new possibilities offered by AI.

The debate is currently being driven by the rapid development of AI. In order to move from reactive mode back to active mode, there is no harm in taking a step back and briefly reflecting on the issue to be discussed. With the so-called “garbage can model of organizational choice”, the theory of organizational science offers us a helpful perspective. The approach is based on limited rationality and therefore questions the functional logic of decisions, which states that solutions are created to solve problems. Rather, the approach assumes that solutions and problems exist independently of each other and are only linked under certain situational conditions. So there are solutions in search of problems they could solve. I think that’s a good view of our challenge: ChatGPT is the solution, but for what problem?

AI brings disciplines together

This question seems to remain unresolved in the current debate, both for university teaching and for research in general. The Perspectives Day on “Interactive Language Models in Teaching and Research,” which took place at the University of Bern on April 21, 2023, provided important findings and insights that need to be taken into account for further discussion.

“People want to create something. AI is not going to change that either.”

Fritz Sager

One initial finding is that the machine, with all its impressive capabilities, is still reassuringly stupid, but it’s unlikely to stay that way. The way we can use today’s AI is not going to be tomorrow’s. The development will not stop, and we would do well to acquire a certain degree of intellectual flexibility.

A second finding is that AI brings academic disciplines together by presenting them with common challenges. The answers will have to be different, but there is no subject that can escape the questions of AI.

Thirdly, teaching is not isolated; the new possibilities are also changing research in general. What is the question of self-performance in learning assessments can be found on a further scale in research, where traditional publications with identifiable authorship have to be redefined.

There is a fourth point I consider to be particularly important. People want to create something. AI is not going to change that either. On Perspectives Day, the students were also the ones who were particularly cautious about AI, as it questions their own performance. Human creativity will take advantage of AI, but it will not be replaced by it.

About the person

Prof. Dr. Fritz Sager

is Vice-Rector Teaching and professor of political science at the competence center for public management at the University of Bern. His special areas are the implementation and impact of public policies, the relationship between science and politics, and the political role of administration.


Prof. Dr. Fritz Sager

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This article first appeared in uniFOKUS, the new University of Bern print magazine. Four times a year, uniFOKUS shows what academia and science are capable of. Thematically, each issue focuses on one specialist area from different points of view and thus aims to bring together as much expertise and as many research results from scientists and other academics at the University of Bern as possible.