A new partnership paves the way for greater use of AI in higher ed

The Hechinger Report looks at Arizona State University's partnership program with OpenAI and its potential impacts on the student body.

Olivia Sanchez for The Hechinger Report
Posted 2/14/24

The Hechinger Report looks at Arizona State University's partnership program with OpenAI and its potential impacts on the student body.

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A new partnership paves the way for greater use of AI in higher ed

The Hechinger Report looks at Arizona State University's partnership program with OpenAI and its potential impacts on the student body.

Posted

 Durham Hall, Arizona State University main campus in Tempe

AdamBagindo // Shutterstock

When ChatGPT burst into the world at the end of 2022, the prevailing feelings in higher education circles were fear of students cheating and concern about how the technology might diminish learning. 

Then – still amid a dizzying flurry of question marks – came hope that maybe educators could find a way to use the technology in their favor and enhance students' learning. 

Now comes the first partnership between a higher education institution and OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, and a new flurry of question marks.  

Arizona State University will begin to offer an unlimited version of ChatGPT Enterprise to its community on an ASU-only server, to ensure that nothing users type into the program will leave the ASU community. ChatGPT Enterprise differs from the free version of the product in what it can process (it has greater data analysis capabilities and doesn't limit the number of requests), how quickly it can process requests and how secure the information is (with this type of account, OpenAI won't use the data for its training models).

At least at first, the ChatGPT Enterprise accounts will be available only to faculty, staff, and researchers who submit proposals for how it could be used to further student success, generate new research, and streamline organizational processes. Students will not have access to it unless they are working with faculty, staff, or researchers who get accounts.

On the other end of the partnership, OpenAI will be involved in designing, supporting, and ensuring the effective use of its tools at ASU, according to a university spokesperson.

Leo S. Lo, the dean of the College of University Library and Learning Sciences at the University of New Mexico and an advocate for AI literacy in higher education, called the partnership a forward-thinking move.

"There are obviously a lot of issues to figure out as they implement this, but the only way to figure out these issues is really by hands-on implementing these things," Lo told The Hechinger Report. "A lot of us outside ASU will be looking at this with interest. We want to learn from them and I'm sure they will share their lessons learned so we can think about how to do it at our own institutions."

He said ASU can start tackling big questions, such as: What are the ethical and societal implications of using this technology? What are the biases of the trained models and the information they put out? What are the limitations and can they be accounted for as the technology evolves?

Though much of the buzz around generative AI in the academic setting has concerned teaching and learning, Lo sees significant implications for other aspects of higher education. Researchers, for example, will be able to use these tools to synthesize large data sets.

Lo said that ASU leaders and others should be wary of a new sort of digital divide that may arise at a time when not all universities have access to these tools.

Though he's excited about ASU's partnership with OpenAI and the similar partnerships he expects will form, he likened the current moment to the dawn of the internet: "Caution is always warranted at this point."

Some ASU instructors already use various forms of artificial intelligence.

For students and others using the free version of ChatGPT, the university's artificial intelligence page advises that they avoid sharing personal information or intellectual property (their own or that of others) with the program.

Kyle Jensen, the director of writing programs at ASU and a professor of English who has had his students working with free versions of ChatGPT and similar technologies, said that generative AI has already brought together faculty from across the university. 

"I routinely talk with colleagues outside of my discipline about issues that I think we all really care about, about problems that we want to solve, about concepts that still seem fuzzy to us," Jensen said. "The power is in the collaboration. The power is in the opportunities that we don't necessarily see before the technology gets put in our hands."

Jensen said he tested some of these technologies with a recent section of his writing methods course, a course primarily filled with upperclassmen.

He encourages students to use ChatGPT to get ideas if they are struggling to start an assignment; he said typing a prompt into the technology can be helpful to students who feel stuck. After they're already in the writing process, he encourages them to share their writing with ChatGPT or similar programs and get feedback about how to improve it. If the technology spits out five different options for how to improve a given sentence, for example, usually the student will either take some aspects of the suggestions and craft their own revision or will dislike the suggestions and become more confident about what they originally wrote. 

Jensen said that using these technologies throughout the process is helping his students become better writers.

ASU has a reputation for its innovative partnerships. Last year, for example, the university began partnering with the ed tech company DreamScape Learn to offer virtual reality biology classes, where students don VR headsets rather than white coats and goggles, and learn about life sciences by solving problems and dissecting dinosaur-like creatures in the Alien Zoo. 

It's unclear how much this new partnership will cost the university. Kyle Bowen, deputy chief information officer of ASU Enterprise Technology, which is responsible for advancing the digital ecosystem at the university, said that the cost will depend on how large the initiative ends up being, and how long it lasts. Right now, he said, both factors are unknown. 

"I wouldn't be able to put a dollar figure on it for you at this point, largely because the use, the response by our community, helps determine what that investment looks like," Bowen said. "It's open-ended, it's designed to be flexible, so that as we identify places where we can have big impact and we want to scale it bigger and do that in responsible ways, then that affords us the opportunity to do that."

As for the future, Anne Jones, ASU's vice provost for undergraduate education, said these types of partnerships make sense for both tech companies and colleges because colleges are microcosms of society at large.

The ASU community is enormous. The university serves nearly 115,000 undergraduate students and 32,000 graduate and professional students, and employs 5,300 faculty members, according to its website.

"We represent an incredibly diverse population of students and faculty and researchers and projects, to test out ideas and look at what is going to have value in that future marketplace," Jones said. "But it's also essential for our students that we be at the table to be training them, because that's going to influence how all of those technologies are being used in workplaces as well."

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.