This article is more than 1 year old

AI is here to stay – and students want clarity on how to harness it

This article is more than 1 year old

Matt Woodrow is Academic Representation Coordinator at Lancaster University Students' Union

As you read this, universities across the world are scrambling to react and adapt to another “new normal”.

Here at the SU at Lancaster University we had a clear sense that we have a part to play in this unfolding story.

We knew that it was our responsibility to give voice to students as the university began discussing policy.

With that conviction in place, we gathered a set of students to write a short list of recommendations from their perspective to the university concerning the use of AI in assessment.

Naturally we turned to some of our most engaged and articulate student leaders for help – our Academic Reps.

These roles have different names at different institutions, but the core concept is the same – Academic Reps are student volunteers who give their time to collect and then voice student feedback to the university.

The additional benefit of involving reps is the wealth of diverse insight they naturally carry. They’ve spent the year gathering feedback and listening to student concerns, all of which they can bring to bear in discussion.

We put out the call to our cohort of roughly 350 Reps, and 20 turned up on the day for our 2-hour session.

Creating room for discussion

We gave them a bit of a primer on the subject from our own research, agreed on ground rules around respect and confidentiality, and then set them away in conversation.

What followed was some of the magic that students are so often capable of producing. We marvelled as they bounced off each other in conversation, ideas developing organically as one student’s insights sparked the imagination of another, creating that sense of shared journey and discovery.

They discussed their general thoughts and then applied those to some case studies we had prepared to help focus their thinking.

Finally, we concluded by getting them into small groups to draw up a list of recommendations for the university around AI use. Comparing their lists together, they highlighted the recommendations that they saw as essential to the final product.

Taking away their thoughts, we sat down as the voice team and harmonised their ideas into a succinct and accessible final list. We have now published their recommendations, and our student panel on “AI in Assessment” will be the headline act for this year’s Lancaster University Education Conference in July.

What the students said

The list they produced gives us some interesting insights to unpack.

There was a clear understanding among the students that the onset of AI couldn’t mean the end of their agency as learners.

As one student put it, “there’s a difference between competency and dependency”. They highlighted the need to be familiar with these new tools but not to fall into the trap of using them to totally circumvent the learning process.

Perhaps we’re tempted to think that students are naturally lazy and would jump at any chance to totally avoid the learning process, but our group indicated we might need to give them more credit in this regard.

As obvious as it is to say, now more than ever, students are painfully aware of the cost of their university years and the need to set themselves up well for the future.

The desire for clarity also came through strongly in their recommendations. Just as some will want to establish the boundaries to see how close they can get; many more are worried about accidentally crossing them through sheer ignorance.

We set students up to flourish when we make the rules of the game clear. Let’s make it easy for them to get stuck in.

As many have highlighted, there is an opportunity now to shift attitudes around assessment: namely, to switch our base-line assumption from suspicion to empathy – to question whether falling foul in this area reflects a devious mind or a desperate one. And this was reflected in what our students said.

They implored staff to put themselves in student shoes and consider the “why” behind AI use and not just the “what”. As they perceptively point out, use of AI may be a helpful tool for educators to highlight blind spots in their own course structures.

The students developed points with practicalities in mind, suggesting actions as well as the means by which they might take place. This is one of the qualities that makes student voice so valuable in contexts like these.

They can imagine both the output and expertly contextualise how that might be applied most effectively for their fellow course-mates.

The tone of the student voice

We wanted to preserve the essential tone of the student voice in the final list of recommendations. Some of the points might come across raw and unfiltered, but this is itself a helpful insight into the student psyche. The sense of urgency in the language used is reflective of the pressing need in students’ minds to act and adapt.

But I also hope this list demonstrates the clear willingness of students to collaborate in forging this new path. As the Academic Rep system demonstrates, there are loads of students at our universities who are willing to help if we show we value their voice and give them a platform to contribute.

We know from our side that teaching staff are so often stretched for time and resources. If you’re reading this as an educator, this might feel like yet another new priority added to a growing list of student needs – and student attitudes to the latest round of strikes indicate that they do genuinely empathise with staff’s working conditions.

However, it is still true that, as Noah, our VP Education, stated so clearly in our report’s foreword: “AI is here to stay” and active adaptation is the only option. If we don’t, we’re choosing to embrace an entirely different set of problems.

The need for the student voice to be central in this unfolding conversation is clear. This is a defining moment of change in the higher education landscape, and we can’t go back. Mistakes will be made along the way – that’s inevitable.

We have to be comfortable with that, even if the stakes feel high.

But let’s not make the mistake of ignoring or undervaluing the voice of the people who this change will affect most – the students.

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