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Student Q&A – how is the university managing advances in artificial intelligence?

Ever wondered how our university is tackling the AI wave? Well, English Literature and Creative Writing student Amy Egan, has written an article on how we as a university  are responding to artificial intelligence, speaking to Dr David Walker, Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education and students) as well as other students.

In recent years, the rapid rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has sent shockwaves throughout society. We’re all pretty used to having spellcheck fix our grammar, or asking Alexa what the weather will be like, or even having a customer service chatbot solve our queries. In November 2022, though, the world of AI shifted; the release of Open AI’s ChatGPT thrust the capabilities of generative AI software into the spotlight. Suddenly, students could input a simple prompt and have entire essays written for them, and thus, it’s role within education became an immediate source of contention.

For many students, and lecturers, the capabilities of generative AI are exciting: “It has the potential to be life changing,” one third-year University of Brighton student, Angelica Blake-Lawson beamed, but it’s clear that the idea of utilising these tools is tainted with the fear: “Nobody wants to be tarnished with academic misconduct” Angelica explains, adding that concerns around unclear guidance pushes student’s even further away from utilising these impressive tools. “When you consider that spellcheck and Grammarly, for example, are both AI programmes, suddenly anxiety around what is or is not acceptable peaks”.

University of Brighton released its official statement in March 2023, authored by Dr David Walker Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education and Students) . This statement outlines the Universities policy: AI can be used when expressly permitted by the module leader, and when it is allowed, it must be declared. However, what exactly does the University mean by AI? It may seem straightforward, but when you consider that spellcheck and Grammarly, for example, are both AI programmes, suddenly anxiety around what is or is not acceptable peaks: “The guidelines make it seem like you must mention every single piece of AI used, and, well, I don’t know if I need to mention spellcheck or not?” Many students share Angelica’s concerns, and Jonathan James, another third-year student at UoB asks: “What work is the University doing to understand these programmes, and set these guidelines?”

To try to answer these questions, I decided to sit down with Dr Walker myself. From the outset, it was clear that he was very familiar with the technological advancements of AI and viewed the developments positively. He explained that with the advent of ChatGPT, the University hit the ground running: “We began with an engagement exercise where we reached out to our internal research experts, we also had several colleagues working with a lot of AI tools within their professional fields, just to get a sense of the pace of development.”

This progressive attitude towards AI is refreshing. During my research for this article, I found that in early 2023, a third of Russell Group universities chose to ban ChatGPT outright. However, Dr Walker and his team at Brighton quickly adopted a much more open-minded position: “We did not want to get into an arms race where we were trying to detect a technology that was far more sophisticated and was going to develop much quicker.” Beyond this, the University recognises that AI tools are likely to be used in many of our future employments, so they wanted to set a policy that allowed us to be equipped with the skills to work with these tools, rather than scare us away from it.

Dr David made it clear; the University want us to utilise these tools when the module leader’s permit it. He emphasised that the University has trust in its students and want to ensure academic integrity is maintained whilst simultaneously keeping pace with the exponential growth of generative AI. This is why the University published its guidelines so promptly, and they have since produced other useful tools for helping students understand how to use AI with academic integrity, such as All My Own Work which helps to define key terms, outline how to declare the use of AI and offer students support and reassurance.

Another method the University is employing is utilising a work group who specifically look at AI and authentic assessments:  “These groups look at assessment methods that are appropriate to the subject, the discipline, and also the professional careers our students will join.” This group actively produces new teaching and learning resources focused on utilising AI tools and makes recommendations to senior staff for updated guidance for students.

While the ongoing efforts to evolve policies in line with the advancements of generative AI is reassuring, Dr Walker emphasises that the key to maintaining an informed approach is through communication with our students: “We know ambiguity is going to cause anxiety, so we encourage students to reach out and ask the question. Never be afraid to ask.”

My conversation with Dr Walker soothed many of the worries I had around AI. No, we don’t now need to declare use of spellcheck, and yes, the University does want us students involved in the conversation. The overall takeaway is that all students with questions or concerns about AI should read the Universities guidelines, access the resources, and, most importantly, talk to their lecturers and the module/course leaders about the permitted uses of AI, and what that encompasses.

Written by Amy Egan, English Literature and Creative Writing BA (Hons).

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Katy Croft • 21 February 2024

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