Raising AI literacy could help schools like ISU navigate a disruptive technology
Roy Magnuson spends a lot of his day staring into the void.
Magnuson is an Illinois State University professor who has a new assignment. He was recently appointed Provost Fellow, tasked with studying disruptive technologies in higher education – like generative artificial intelligence (AI). Discussions about AI at ISU are well underway, Magnuson said. AI guidance has already started popping up on syllabi. Formal policy is likely coming.
“There’s so much that’s unknown,” Magnuson said.
Magnuson is a composer, not a machine-learning scholar. He’s done a lot of virtual-reality work in music, which is kinda-sorta adjacent to AI.
“My whole background is in music, and the fact that I’m having this conversation with you is both hilarious and also a product of the technology – that people are able to go and learn,” Magnuson said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “Me as a person being here is a threat. That people can just go learn. And if information becomes that accessible – valid information with the ability to reason through it, and we know you can trust it, it’s vetted – then yes, that’s an existential threat to a university if it’s structured the way it is. But I think that’s also something we can talk about: What is a university? What is the in-person experience?”
Magnuson and others will steer ISU through these uncharted waters. On the surface, AI presents a dangerously easy new option for cheating. But the upsides are easy to see too.
“These are the things they don’t make movies about,” Magnuson said. “It’s super powerful. In a pedagogical sense, lots of people have talked about creating infinitely patient tutors to transfer information to students, that can speak 40 different languages. They are multimodal, so you can literally talk to them or type or put in pictures. That’s profoundly powerful for accessibility for students who maybe can’t type or cannot see and they want to have things read to them.”
If education is only thought of as transferring knowledge from one person to another, then Magnuson said yes, AI is alarming. It can write a 5-paragraph essay in a jiffy.
“But that’s not the goal of any ISU class fundamentally, and that’s not the beauty of a liberal arts education. We’re trying to help them grow into great citizens, parents and spouses, and teach them to be curious critical thinkers, to be ethical, and to be just,” Magnuson said.
AI doesn’t fundamentally change that goal, he said. But it could speed things up.
“The in-person experience then – speaking from my perspective as a musician – could be much more of what we love to do, which is looking at music and analyzing it and talking through application to their individual careers or taking music educators to work with students, or therapists working with clients, or composers doing readings in class on what they’re working on. We spend so much time getting to that point,” Magnuson said. “Because we take so long, because there’s so much stuff to go through, to get to the point where they can use it. The dream is we can get there much more quickly. You get to synthesis and the application-learning and experiential-learning much much earlier in their time.”
A first step, he said, is to raise AI literacy levels for both students and faculty, Magnuson said. Some of that work is already underway. ISU’s Center for Integrated Professional Development, for example, published a guide to help faculty navigate these early days of AI.
“We don’t have our heads in the sand,” Magnuson said.