April 20, 2024
AI in higher ed: OpenAI partners with Arizona State University


Despite concerns raised by some educators and administrators, AI is coming to higher education.

Today, Arizona State University announced it has partnered with OpenAI, arguably the leading generative AI company and maker of ChatGPT and DALL-E 3, in a first-of-its-kind alliance to bring the latter’s tech to the former’s institutional processes.

“ASU recognizes that augmented and artificial intelligence systems are here to stay, and we are optimistic about their ability to become incredible tools that help students to learn, learn more quickly, and understand subjects more thoroughly,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said in a statement posted to ASU’s website. “Our collaboration with OpenAI reflects our philosophy and our commitment to participate directly in the responsible evolution of AI learning technologies.”

What will ASU use OpenAI tech for?

Specifically, ASU is interested in using OpenAI’s tech in three broad areas:

  1. Enhancing student success.
  2. Forging new avenues for innovative research.
  3. Streamlining organizational processes.

But these are all just vague platitudes and notions for now.

Exactly how ASU will integrate OpenAI’s generative AI solutions remains to be seen. The partnership will begin with a “an open challenge” in February which will “[invite] faculty and staff to submit their ideas of best-use scenarios.”

According to CNBC, ASU’s plans include granting “full access” to ChatGPT for Enterprise tier to the university starting in February 2024 — though whether that’s to all students or staff or both is not clear. In addition:

ASU plans to build a personalized AI tutor for students, not only for certain courses, but also for study topics. STEM subjects are a focus and are “the make-or-break subjects for a lot of higher education,” Gonick said. The university will also use the tool in ASU’s largest course, Freshman Composition, to offer students writing help.

ASU also plans to use ChatGPT Enterprise to develop AI avatars as a “creative buddy” for studying certain subjects, like bots that can sing or write poetry about biology, for instance.

ASU is not necessarily at the top of the list when it comes to universities known for their programs in AI or even computer science.

In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, the top degrees awarded by ASU tend to be in “Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services,” at 22% of all graduate majors in 2022, followed by “Engineering” and “Biological and Biomedical Sciences” at 9%. “Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services,” made up only 6% of degrees awarded in 2022.

Yet clearly, the university sees potential in embracing the technology to aid its educational delivery even in other fields and domains.

I’ll be honest, as a former college student and never educator, a “creative” study “buddy” sounds cheesy as hell and like something that students would likely complain about and ridicule in equal measure — and try to mess with, as we’ve seen people do with GPT-3 powered customer service chatbots. But I also have used ChatGPT to help summarize content and format writing, so I could see it being useful for some collegiate level tasks.

AI’s bumpy road in education

The generative AI boom that has been embraced by many enterprises is still lagging when it comes to the broader educational sphere, at least in the U.S.

The public release of ChatGPT in November 2022 was followed by reports of concerns that students would use the capable chatbot and underlying large language model (LLM) GPT-3.5 (and later GPT-4) to “cheat” or complete assigned coursework meant for them to do unaided by AI, such as write original essays.

Some professors even accused their students of cheating using ChatGPT but were unable to conclusively prove that they used the tool, and The Atlantic (my former employer) even posited that “The College Essay Is Dead,” thanks to the technology and its speedy and compotent writing skills.

A number of software options also emerged that purported to detect AI-written material for the classroom, such as those offered by educational software company Turnitin, but experience quickly showed they were not effective and, in fact, many times they improperly flagged writing by English-as-a-second language students, causing some universities to abandon them.

Additionally, research from Stanford University found that the advent of ChatGPT did not meaningfully increase cheating in high schools.

And some school governing bodies that initially banned the tool ended up reversing course and embracing it, like in the case of the New York City Department of Education.

Why the partnership makes sense now

As such, after all the controversy over the idea of AI in education and higher ed in particular, it is perhaps a good time for ASU and OpenAI to announce this partnership.

More people are growing comfortable with AI tools, and even as OpenAI faces down lawsuits for its training practices, it has perhaps passed through the initial fear and skepticism among educators and is now viewed more favorably, or at least, less unfavorably.

Other AI tools are already targeting the education sector, such as Canva, which recently launched “Classroom Magic,” free AI graphic design and digital content creation tools for K-12 educators and students, as well as a paid university tier. So OpenAI’s move into this arena is in part defensive and reactive, competing with potential rivals for the same userbase.

One thing is clear: the announcement is surely helpful for OpenAI’s ambitions to cement itself as a core tech provider of organizations across sectors, soaking up recurring subscription revenue in the process, and may help the company’s image as it faces criticisms for abandoning some of its original principles such as not working on technology for “military and warfare,” and instead signing agreements with the U.S. military.

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