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Enhancer or obstacle?: AI’s role at UCLA and in online learning after COVID-19

(Emily Hu/Daily Bruin)

By Myra Hussain

Jan. 25, 2024 10:35 p.m.

As online learning becomes more widespread and AI tools gain prominence in academia, both faculty and students are adapting to shifts in the educational environment in various ways.

AI simulates human intelligence to enable decision-making and problem-solving. For instance, the AI chatbot ChatGPT uses a conversation-based model where users can ask questions or assign tasks such as drafting an email. While some students utilize AI to supplement their learning, the surge in academic dishonesty linked to AI prompts educators to establish ethical guidelines for its use.

According to Forbes, ChatGPT had 1 million users within the first five days after its release and expects an annual growth rate of 37.3% from 2023 to 2030. As such, experts on AI tools in higher education offer various insights into how student learning is affected and how online learning plays into this dynamic.

Forbes reported that the popularity of remote learning has significantly increased since the early 2010s. Currently, a majority of college and university students in the U.S. participate in at least some online classes and according to The Hechinger Report, almost all university chief online officers surveyed anticipate that online teaching will increase. Online learning within school curriculums may include fully online classes or a blend of in-person and online curriculums.

With increased time spent learning online, opportunities to use AI platforms in education increase as well. Jess Gregg, the senior associate director for the UCLA Center for Education, Innovation and Learning in the Sciences, highlighted how students can use AI to enhance their learning while also emphasizing the need to ensure responsible usage.

“New AI tools can provide live virtual tutoring to students who are learning to code and tools like ChatGPT can be used to support the research and writing processes, acting as a sort of thought partner for the students,” Gregg said. “But, of course, there’s a lot of concerns about how quickly, and many would say carelessly, these technologies have been rolled out in a rush to be first to market and a lot of work is needed to figure out how to regulate and how to reduce harm.”

The prevalence of AI has also complicated processes of evaluating academic dishonesty. According to The Guardian, academic dishonesty such as plagiarism has become harder to detect because of the rise of AI.

“Students need to take responsibility for how they are using these tools and to work collaboratively with their instructors to ensure that they are using AI to enhance their learning and not undermine it,” Gregg added.

The prevalence of online learning and the concurrent rise of AI have motivated some professors to adjust their class formats. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, teachers have devised different methods to lower the chances of students using AI to cheat. Some intend to assign more in-class work while others plan to adjust assignments so that students have to mainly rely on personal experiences or materials less accessible to AI.

Gabriel Rossman, a sociology professor at UCLA, says he combats rising cases of academic dishonesty in his online sociology of mass media course by increasing in-person assignments and exams.

“I insisted that I would only teach it if I got to have the exams in person because I didn’t want to have the kind of situation that we had during COVID where everything was online and cheating went way up,” Rossman said. “You do see it on the homework as well, where you can just kind of tell that some of these assignments people use AI.”

Alternatively, some professors believe that changing their class formats might not be the most suitable course of action for their particular course. Kathlyn Cooney, chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department, said students who do not feel interested in the subject topic will continue to resort to academic cheating.

Additionally, in reference to her writing-based classes, Cooney said paper prompts can be made more unique to encourage authenticity.

“It might make writing demand a more personal touch,” Cooney said. “It might demand a much more personal, authentic direction than not.”

While professors deal with the use of AI in an educational environment influenced by online learning, UCLA guidelines regarding AI encourage its ethical use.

The Center for the Advancement of Teaching provides instructors with guidance for the use of generative AI with an overview of how they can integrate AI in a responsible, ethical manner.

In a written statement, the UCLA Teaching and Learning Center said it collaborates with educators to establish optimal strategies for designing online courses. Additionally, the current approval procedure for online courses differs from the process implemented during the emergency remote instruction in 2020.

Gregg added that UCLA is taking an active role in understanding and recognizing the role of AI in today’s world.

“UCLA is very well positioned to be a leader in this space and also to prepare students to be future leaders when it comes to all of the issues and uses for artificial intelligence in our society,” Gregg said.

Given a hybrid educational environment after COVID-19, students find themselves utilizing AI resources in various ways. While the harms brought by the unethical use of AI hinder academic honesty, the capacity of AI to promote learning still persists, Gregg said.

“I really look at it through that lens of this (AI technology) is not going anywhere and we need to prepare our students and support them to be leaders in this space,” Gregg said. “I really see it as an opportunity.”

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Myra Hussain
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