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AI Can Transform Higher Ed and the Workforce

Dr. Jim Catanzaro, Executive Director of HERDI South

October 2023

Dire projections for the workforce in general and higher education specifically have been front and center in the media and on campuses across the nation since the release of ChatGPT in November 2022. In time, many have argued, unprecedented numbers of employees will be displaced. This is clearly an issue in the current Hollywood strikes where both writers and actors fear replacement by generative AI tools. Others have offered softer projections, for example, that those in managerial and professional positions will be freed of routine work and provided both time and rich information as a foundation for significant advances in their productivity and outputs.

Recognizing the transformational advances these tools now do afford, some institutions have decided to go deep into experimentation with these new capabilities. They are testing the hypothesis that AI can be a powerful agent for research, student recruitment and support, marketing, instruction and learning. It can be, at the least, an effective tutor especially to underserved students, as the Khan Academy is showing. With so much AI innovation happening in both industry and education, I’ve made up my mind to document it, with my reflections.

This is my third blog post on generative AI and higher ed. So far, each HERDI blog post is derived from a webinar I moderated hosted by ACUE (The Association of College and University Educators). The first post in the series introduced how this ground-breaking technology is impacting curriculum-building and instruction. The second post explored how AI can materially impact student recruitment and well-being. This third post is focused on the workforce, both inside and outside of higher education, along with the college programs at all levels that prepare students for the contemporary workplace.

The panel for our third ACUE webinar was made up of Dr. Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU); Dr. Erika Burk, VP of Human Resources for Porsche North America; and Dr. Rolando García, President of North Hennepin Community College (MN). Our goal was to help attendees become knowledgeable about how generative AI is:

(1) impacting business, industry, and the professions;

(2) delivering with immediacy constructive curricular and instructional responses; and

(3) offering up strategies to optimize college and university leadership, program administration, student support functions, and instruction – all through natural language requests.

Paul kicked off our panel discussion, grounding his perspective in the work of Carlota Perez, a researcher focused on the social and economic impact of technological change. Paul noted that generative AI has been adopted faster than any technology before, creating a “catalytic moment” for society, and leading, predictably, to real disruption. Paul proffered that this disruption, while clearly threatening, has a bright side since it will require us to think and act differently. At a minimum, to stay relevant, an entire new set of skills must now be incorporated in our programs and courses, both generative AI skills and human-focused skills. College leaders, also, will be able to prompt drafts of many documents they generate daily, from emails to strategic plans to fund development pieces.

Indeed, I do think whole occupations will be freed of routine tasks. Teachers, social workers, mental health and geriatric health care workers, vital to our society, will be refocused on the human contact side. With this new paradigm shift, we may reconsider the low status (and compensation!) these human-focused professions and industries currently hold. In the automotive industry, Erika is already seeing AI-influenced change.

Erika reported that she is seeing tasks and even jobs being impacted due to the arrival of generative AI tools. Chatbots are stepping in to help customers with predictable, everyday issues, leaving more complicated, high-touch work to human customer service representatives. Erika believes that people-oriented work will never be replaced, no matter how good AI gets. She reflected that she has tested ChatGPT4 with foreign language translation. It performed very well, but human-to-human communication includes idiomatic phrases and innuendos that are not always captured by these tools.  So how might generative AI and humans work effectively together in the automotive industry?

At Porsche, Erika’s team is using generative AI to perform some administrative tasks like the development of “starting places” for policies and letters recognizing that AI tool outputs need humans to check for sources and correct for bias. She believes her incoming employees require, in addition to vital soft skills, the ability to navigate tools like generative AI along with computer literacy in applications like Microsoft Office.

Because HR leaders like Erika are looking for incoming employees to have basic generative AI skills, institutions like Rolando’s are already asking faculty to explore how to use these tools in the classroom. Rolando shared that when using large language model (LLM) tools in class, students become more competitive as they graduate into the workplace. So, Rolando believes, instructors should become skilled at using “nuanced prompts”, asking ChatGPT for sources along with learning outcomes. Paul mentioned earlier in the webinar and Rolando agreed that it does take high domain knowledge to develop effective prompts and vet what generative AI tools produce. Rolando shared that assessing generative AI can become a solid strategy for college leaders when looking to make the most of their existing resources. That said, this rising technology can create both hope and concern for those in higher ed.

In response to concerns shared by our webinar attendees, Paul reminded us that although AI itself has been around for a while, it is still evolving. With this in mind, we must be cautious when we use these powerful tools. We should be cognizant that some of the sources generative AI uses are heavily biased, as the algorithm itself may be. Because of this, outputs of the technology need close review. We also need to consider ownership and intellectual property rights when using AI tools. As mentioned earlier in this post, checking sources is important. And following protocols for citing or linking out to them is too! Paul shared that other regions of the world, like Europe, are taking a more cautious, deliberate, approach to regulating the use of this new disruptive technology, while we in the US are diving in head first.  

The organizations represented on our panel are certainly jumping into this new disruptive technology and exploring it to discover its value. It was really exciting to hear detailed stories about AI implementations happening right now. And our speakers hit upon some crucial topics regarding the workforce of today and tomorrow: the changes that AI will bring to jobs, human-centered work, and generative AI literacy. These future-thinking leaders covered some deep topics. What a great event! 

A final note as I close this post...I do appreciate continuing to learn how college leaders are working with AI. If you have some strategies underway, please reach out to me on LinkedIn or via email. I would love to hear about your work! 



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