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The Transformative Power of Artificial Intelligence

CMU faculty and students explore the possibility that intelligence tools could enhance the learning experience and positively reshape the future of higher education

There is a lot of uncertainty around artificial intelligence. The subject itself encompasses an array of technologies and applications that do different things for different people. The overarching question remains: Does AI, generally, make human life better or worse? This article doesn’t answer that question nor does it attempt to. What it does do, is offer a glimpse into the ways some faculty and students are utilizing this revolutionary technology and it highlights some of the conversations that are happening on Colorado Mesa University’s campus related to AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a revered cognitive psychologist and computer scientist, is widely referred to as the Godfather of Artificial Intelligence. He led the way in developing the idea that a machine could trade information by operating similarly to neurons in the brain. He built a digital neural network that could learn on its own by reading the contents of the internet and analyzing objects and information over time to discover patterns and eventually learn from those patterns. The network Hinton built has transformed over the decades into something much more sophisticated and mainstream. The technology is now found in tools people use every day, like face recognition to unlock iPhones, spam filters for unsolicited emails, language translation services to communicate in foreign countries and virtual assistants that use voice commands; think ‘Hey Alexa, play Rumors by Fleetwood Mac.’

While Hinton has since come out expressing concerns about the future of AI, higher education institutions are racing to figure out what to do in relation to today’s ever-evolving technological landscape. Will they embrace the transformative power AI has to revolutionize the classroom or will they shy away from it? At CMU, many faculty and students have been proactive when it comes to experimenting with AI and have determined that they are cautiously optimistic about its benefits and the role it can play in the university setting.

Proponents of intelligence tools argue that they have the ability to positively reshape the way students learn, the way instructors teach and, in some ways, how educational institutions function. By not only accepting but leveraging these technologies, universities and colleges can enhance student engagement and academic performance while providing learners with the skills and knowledge necessary to thrive in an AI-driven world. CMU Instructor of English Brooke Carlson, PhD, sees AI as another way to help people think, read, research and write.

“Anytime the question of technology arises we need to ask ourselves what purpose does it serve? Is it effective? Is it appropriate? Is it meaningful?” said Carlson.

He continued, “[AI provides] a good opportunity for us to think of ways we can write collaboratively and use the technology to input prompts and see what kind of materials it provides for us and build on that material.” 

According to Carlson, applications like ChatGPT provide the building blocks on which we can expand. It’s a place to work collaboratively, and he’s offered up such assignments to his students. 

“I think the collaborative idea around writing is important. A lot of times students come to the idea of composition, research, thinking and writing as an individualized experience. Tools like this help,” explained Carlson.

The infusion of AI technologies in higher education is redefining traditional educational practices and unlocking a myriad of benefits. In some classrooms on CMU’s campus, those benefits can already be seen.

CMU freshman Maritza Corral is a perfect example. Born in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Corral moved to Mexico with her family when she was five years old. She was raised in Chihuahua until her senior year of high school. To prepare for college, she and her twin sister moved back to the US, lived with extended family and enrolled at Rifle High School. Corral’s English was limited to colors, numbers and making introductions at the time. She said it wasn’t until she attended CMU that she really began learning English. In a few short months, Corral was able to get a better understanding of her second language, with some credit to a newfound friend: ChatGPT.

“The first time I heard about AI was because of my sister. She said it was funny, that it could write an essay about penguins and candy,” said Corral. “She was having fun playing around with the technology. I was afraid at first.”

Not long after Corral’s conversation with her sister, the topic found its way into one of her classrooms.

CMU Lecturer of Communication Studies Laurena Davis, PhD, presented an assignment to the class, opening a door to the mysterious software which would allow students to learn about the tool and how to use it efficiently and ethically. 

“I realized it’s not only helpful to write but also you can study using ChatGPT,” added Corral.

When she came across paragraphs in her textbook that were too complex for her to understand, Corral would copy them into ChatGPT and ask it to paraphrase them in English in the simplest form. For the emails she wrote to her professors, she copied her first draft into the application and asked it to write the email more formally. From there, she would edit it again herself.

Intelligent algorithms can not only evaluate email messages and textbooks, but assignments, essays, exams and mathematical equations; and can provide detailed feedback that contributes to a student’s educational growth. Does AI provide the opportunity to expand one’s knowledge far beyond what we can learn without it? Does it help unlock even more of a person’s potential? Possibly.

“[The software] has been really helpful for me to improve my English and to do better. I’ve seen a lot of improvement and my grades are getting better since I started using it,” said Corral.

Corral explained that AI is not only helpful for those who are English language learners, but for students who struggle with any subject, be it biology, math or coding.

“English is complicated, I imagine, even for people who use English as their first language,” said Corral.

The majority of those who use AI generators are still in the experimentation process, as is Assistant Professor of Art, Animation and Digital Filmmaking Evan Curtis. In the classroom, Curtis has given quite a bit of freedom to his students to explore generative AI art. As an animator and live-action filmmaker, he also uses it outside of academia for idea generation, concept art and storyboards. While much of this technology is new to the masses, some industries have been using AI for some time. Think of Hollywood, said Curtis, and how it uses de-aging technology for actors in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Irishman. It's also used to adjust actors' mouths for foreign-language dubbed movies.

During the process of learning to use AI tools, Curtis refined his prompts over and over again and was surprised by the uniqueness of each creation. A prompt from his imagination would warp in a new direction with every adaptation to produce what he believes to be truly unique.

“AI doesn't seem to have a style, it doesn't have its own aesthetic, so most of the imagery is based on human prompts focused around that human's aesthetic decisions,” said Curtis.

Intelligent algorithms work by taking in information, updating, remembering and predicting. It's considered original content as it’s taking what it’s learned from existing text and material and projecting something that hasn’t been done before. Which, Curtis argues, is similar to a human’s creative process. The idea is that the user is only limited by their imagination, no matter the tool — be it paint brush or prompt.

Most of the exploratory work related to AI on CMU’s campus has been fueled by curiosity and done in the spirit of human ingenuity. Yet, there are real concerns that exist with AI on college campuses, such as safeguarding student privacy, questions around plagiarism and the future of the job market.

Curtis said he has no doubt that AI will change jobs and the landscape of some companies.

“It will replace some artists, but will not destroy mediums, fields or artists entirely,” explained Curtis. “Disney isn't going to get rid of all of their animators and concept artists for ‘prompt engineers’ but they may reduce the size of their departments. Regardless, humans will be collaborating and working with AI in many of these settings. I think the more saturated we are in AI work; the more people will seek out human-made pieces.”

Carlson has thoughts on the questions around plagiarism and about students who want to use technology to do the work for them. 

“That’s a shortcut, that the idea is to get something for nothing and, generally speaking, that’s a poor way to wield technology,” he said. “The problem with this technology in academia, I think, is that none of our institutions are prepared for how the numbers are going to increase exponentially around the questions of authorship and ownership,” said Carlson.

To employ enough people to address plagiarism accusations pertaining to AI would be extremely difficult. Carlson said there is a need to be cautious about intelligence tools, but argues the purpose of higher education institutions and their mission should be first and foremost.

“What are we here to do as a university? Is the institution about incarcerations and punishment or is this an institution of higher ed? Are we invested in transformation and growth and lifelong learning and skillsets that we can apply in our world to make the world a better place? I think we’re interested in the latter,” added Carlson.

Carlson hits on a critical component of the overall mission of higher education institutions. College campuses exist in large part to enhance communities and the people in them. By integrating AI into the classroom, universities and colleges can create dynamic learning environments that adapt to the needs of students, foster innovation and equip graduates with the skills needed for the rapidly changing job market.

As Hinton’s advancements continue to evolve, so will the debate around who should use the technology, how it should be used and to what extent. For members of the CMU community, the marriage of AI and education holds immense promise. By enabling personalized learning opportunities like that of Corral’s, institutions can improve the educational experience and potentially strengthen a student’s ability to learn and retain information in a way that’s specific to them. CMU faculty and staff have courageously embraced the field of machine learning at a time when it would have been easy to shy away from it. They’ve proven to be explorers in a daring new world to ensure students can successfully navigate life after college, and for that, they are serving the mission well. 


Written by Kelsey Coleman