Third-space reflections on how we channel the explosion of generative AI into respectful active learning communities
Dr Catherine Elkin, Experiential Learning Tutor, Rise, Centre for Learning Enhancement and Educational Development (LEED), Man Met Uni.
Leanne Fitton, Senior Digital Education Specialist, Senior Fellow AdvanceHE, Digital Education Team, Centre for Learning Enhancement and Educational Development (LEED), Man Met Uni
Dr Chris Little, Senior Lecturer in Academic Development, Senior Fellow AdvanceHE, Certified Member of ALT (CMALT), University, Teaching Academy, Centre for Learning Enhancement and Educational Development, Man Met Uni.
Manchester Met has put showcasing and getting the most out of its transformational active learning community front and centre of its institutional Education Strategy and roadmap to 2030. As such, the university wanted to find the most appropriate path through the emergence of Generative AI platforms, balancing innovation alongside core values of inclusion, equity and fairness. This short blog post offers short reflections from three colleagues, all based in Manchester Met’s Centre for Learning Enhancement and Educational Development (LEED), in three different roles – an academic developer (Chris), a digital education specialist (Leanne) and an experiential learning tutor (Catherine).
This piece charts the timeline of our support internally for staff and students, moving from the early days of fielding staff anxiety around the emergence of Generative AI, developing a university position, supporting early experimentation with different forms of Generative AI and finally supporting and understanding students use of it.
At the beginning of the Generative AI and the ChatGPT explosion, Chris and Leanne found themselves offering staff-facing ‘Let’s talk about Generative AI’ sessions, fielding questions about this contentious issue, jointly offering a digital education and academic development perspective on this issue. These webinars began in March 2023 and continue to this day, to give a broad overview of the technology and to provide a space for colleagues to ask questions and to highlight areas that any upcoming policy/institutional position might need to focus on.
Reflection #1 – How could this ever be part of an equitable, respectful and active learning community? An academic developer’s reflection
“When the ‘Let’s talk’ sessions began, anxiety across the HE sector was high, with, sadly, a lot of focus on the potential for students to cheat with Gen AI and many early workshops were dominated by these questions. I found this position of distrust to be emotionally taxing as we know that the overwhelming majority of students do not cheat, and even fewer do it with intent. Here, this focus on student misconduct painted a picture of the HE sector that I did not want to acknowledge was true or that I belonged to. Added to this were various concerns about ethical use of such tools, and the tools themselves, and the implications for GDPR. This meant that, before we had an institutionally and equitably available platform, I worried that the barriers to access and upskilling required for staff and students, plus this overwhelming starting position of distrust, meant that this could never be a meaningful part of any respectful and active learning community. There were voices of positivity and trust, but often in the minority – much in the way many sector-wide open events played out in our experience. Additionally, it was hard to field questions and generate enthusiasm for tools that were paywalled and caused such ethical and data protection concerns. As such we had to frame much of our early workshops around understanding uses and barriers to equitable use but essentially discouraging use with students while these access concerns existed”.
The levels of engagement with the Let’s Talk Sessions was comparable to the demand seen during the pandemic. Having found that the conversations were often focussed on ChatGPT, we wanted to provide a safe space for colleagues to explore the capabilities and limitations of other AI tools, which led to the development of a series of ‘Let’s Explore’ workshops.
Reflection #2 Leanne – What can we do to provide safe spaces to explore an ever-changing landscape of AI tools, enabling academic colleagues to figure out how they fit into our active learning community? A digital education specialist’s perspective
“Given the issues already discussed about equitable access to tools, we decided to focus the Let’s Explore sessions on AI functionality that was already available in institutional software. We started by exploring the AI functionalities with Office 365, looking at the potential for tools such as PowerPoint Presenter Coach, Word Editor, Read Aloud and Transcribe. These well-established tools have clearly defined functionality, offering an opportunity for participants to build their confidence in having conversations about AI. When Bing Chat was made available within the institution at the start of 2023/24, we were able to explore the use of AI for generating text and images. Outside of Office 365, AI can be found integrated into a range of tools that we used at the university, such as in our Apps for Teaching and Learning. The sessions were developed to be flexible, to allow for them to be adapted as new tools emerged. Run as an online workshop, each session starts with an introductory explanation and demonstration of the tool, followed by a hands-on activity and concludes with a reflective discussion. We found that where we used breakout rooms for the hands-on activity, we were able to have a richer reflective discussion, highlighting the value of peer support when exploring AI tools. During the discussion, perspectives on potential opportunities and challenges that the different tools bring were based on the participants’ own experiences of using the tools, allowing for a more nuanced conversation. However, this was still tricky to manage at times due to the wide ranging and complex issues, so it was helpful to be able to signpost to the Let’s Talk sessions for detailed discussions.”
Participants of the workshops regularly asked about approaches to talking to students about AI. To find out more about this, Catherine and Leanne ran a series of extended curricular workshops to explore different ways of engaging with students on the topic.
Reflection #3 Catherine How can we initiate a meaningful dialogue with students to collaboratively shape the role of AI within active learning communities? Moreover, how can we uncover the subtle ways in which these tools have already integrated into our students’ everyday experiences?
“The rise of Generative AI platforms like ChatGPT has sparked a range of reactions, from optimism about their potential to streamline tasks to concerns about potential plagiarism among students. Amidst the growing discourse on the potential pitfalls of widespread use for academic dishonesty, it became apparent that rather than making assumptions about their actions, a more impactful strategy would involve opening a dialogue with students about this technology.
In collaboration with my colleague, Leanne, we developed a series of workshops designed to foster a meaningful conversation with students about these advancements. Our approach began with encouraging students to reflect on the incorporation of AI tools in everyday software, such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Gradually, we shifted towards explicit discussions on large language models like Chat GPT, exploring both practical applications and ethical considerations in their use.
To prompt a collaborative and reflective learning experience, we also presented students with scenarios involving Generative AI, encouraging them to consider responsible usage and share their own experiences. Surprisingly, the dialogue revealed that many students viewed these tools as aids for social interaction. This not only shed light on alternative perspectives beyond the concern of academic integrity, but also demonstrated how these technologies have become embedded into their active day-to-day learning and communication.”
The above reflections are a glimpse into the cultural change that has taken place and is still underway at Manchester Met University. The pattern of honest open discussions with staff, moving towards supported and scaffolded exploration of educational technology tools, finishing with positive and respectful awareness raising pieces with students is a good way of thinking about empowering others to use new educational innovations.
We look forward to exploring this path and these reflections, as well as the lessons learnt, in a webinar for the Active Learning SIG in Spring 2024 [Date to be confirmed] and we hope you will join us then.