When it comes to integrating artificial intelligence into higher education spaces, typically larger colleges are leading those conversations, like Arizona State’s recent partnership with OpenAI and the University of Florida’s ambitious plan to ensure students in every academic discipline are AI-capable. But mid-sized universities like the University of Montana don’t want to be left behind.
In an effort to advance conversations about AI use on campus, the University of Montana hosted faculty, staff, students and other community members to a symposium earlier this month to explore the challenges and opportunities posed by AI in higher education.
Holding the university’s first campus-wide conversation on AI better positioned it to advance its strategies around the technology from classroom learning environments through campus operations, said Zach Rossmiller, the university’s chief information officer .
“We wanted industry experts to kind of help talk through some of it, but also have some dialogue internally with folks about where do we see the opportunities and what seems realistic for us to go after,” Rossmiller, who helped plan the event, said in an interview with EdScoop. “I took really great pride in how the event turned out. I think it was great for starting these conversations.”
More than 300 people attended the symposium in person and about 50 turned in virtually for the sessions led by experts with Microsoft, the education consulting firm EAB and the Montana Digital Academy, a state-funded, online K-12 course provider that school districts use to extend their offerings into more subjects. While many of the in-person attendees indicated they had some experience using AI, the presenters helped bring everyone up to speed on the technology’s capabilities as well as successful use-cases in other higher education settings.
In the afternoon, attendees broke into smaller groups to share their experiences using AI and brainstorm practical ways the technology could be used to improve campus operations and prepare students for future careers. Rossmiller said that the symposium helped him identify ways to use AI as a tool to increase operational efficiency and he’s eager to get to apply those to the university.
Over the next month, working groups from the symposium will continue to explore examples of AI use in a formal vision document that the university will consult as it integrates the technology.
“You can put your head in the sand about this, but really we need to adjust to this because it’s happening whether we like it or not,” Jason Neiffer, executive director of the Montana Digital Academy, said during a presentation. “I think there’s a lot of scary things about this technology too, but to ignore it or wait for someone else to make the decisions for us will only negatively impact what we’re producing in our institutions.”
While the University of Montana may not be in the same position as the University of Florida to hire 100 new faculty members dedicated to AI, there are still plenty of ways it’s integrating the technology into its campus operations and learning environments, Rossmiller said.
Amy Ratto Parks, associate director of the university’s writing center, said that most of the conversations she has about her job now are dominated by AI and the technology’s impact on writing. She said students are still motivated to improve their writing skills and are generally more inclined to use AI as a tool, rather than a way to cheat.
“It really emphasizes what we already know from our research about novice writers versus more experienced writers who are really trying to use these tools in different ways,” Ratto Parks said during her presentation. “We are seeing that the most successful uses of these tools happen when students are in conversation with the tool itself.”
She also noted that AI tools are most successful in supplementing students’ learning when faculty members offer guidance on how that technology can be appropriately used for certain assignments.
“They’re the most successful when students are using these tools at the very beginning of the writing process and the very, very end of the writing process and very strategically to go through for revisions,” Ratto Parks said.
Practically, that looks like using an AI to help brainstorm initial prompts or outlines, but it can also identify potential counter arguments to essays, she said.
“That’s why we teach, is to question those biases and question those [AI] hallucinations and that’s how we can get students to become critical thinkers,” Rossmiller said.