AI has a place in the classroom despite its challenges

Within the past week, I have been reading some interesting Chronicle of Higher Education articles that my campus dean sent regarding concern about students' lack of zeal for intellectual engagement in the classroom. We spent some time discussing this in my annual review, particularly how many professors now feel they are at a crossroads in reaching Gen Z, the current traditional generation of college students.

Gen Z attention spans keep getting shorter as they are locked into the latest TikTok challenge and scroll through their phones to see “what's poppin on the Gram” (Instagram). Actually, though, Gen Zers may not even use “poppin” as much now since it's so 2020. Nevertheless, many Gen Z college students seem extremely bored with class activities even when they are put in discussion groups or when professors are interacting with them and not lecturing from Google or PowerPoint slides.

ChatGPT's implementation of generative AI has also greatly contributed to a lethargic attitude toward learning and student participation. One of the Chronicle articles my dean shared was written by Beth McMurtrie, who highlighted this wearied question from professors: “Are we just grading robots?” A community college professor McMurtrie interviewed used “anguish” to describe the mood he is observing among his colleagues. When considering the time and effort put into assignment prompts for essays and class discussion boards, it's frustrating and disappointing when students choose to solely rely on ChatGPT.

I, like many instructors who teach in the humanities, am very meticulous in my efforts to revamp assignments so that students must put in original thought and critical analysis even if they use AI for research assistance. The challenges that AI poses to learning along with the continued social media distractions make Gen Z students a tough and demanding audience. However, they are not completely unreachable. We just have to become more inventive in motivating them as technology continues to advance.

I think that many Gen X professors like myself find working in this AI-digital age especially difficult due to the fact that teaching methods used for us, mainly lectures that required disciplined and attentive listening, won't work for Gen Z. One concept that has remained constant for successful and innovative teaching is that students must be reached where they are. For my generation, this was much easier because many of us went to community or professional events with our parents where we listened to people speak outside of a school setting. For me growing up, church was the main place where I heard speeches in addition to sermons. My rhetorical skills were also sharpened early in church as I began speaking before audiences when I was 6 years old. Of course, I wanted to make my mother and Jesus proud, and I attribute these childhood experiences to my eagerness in participating in class discussions at school.

By the time I got to college in the 1990s, I was already used to well-organized lectures and presentations. Now I, as well as my peers, did have moments where we got distracted in class, and the old-school way of diverting our attention from teachers was passing notes, which Gen Xers like to proudly acclaim was the original form of texting. But since we scribbled notes on paper instead of having our heads zoned into smartphone screen updates, teachers didn't have an extremely hard time reeling us back into the lesson plan. Additionally, with no AI for guidance in writing and outlining papers, our analytical abilities were honed as we formed our own unique, creative analyses of course readings.

McMurtrie points out that AI's current impact on pedagogical approaches will encourage more professors to adapt it into their classrooms. I know that I do not want to “grade robots” for my English composition classes, so I am going to take the initiative in learning more about AI platforms that incorporate tutoring and brainstorming that will aid students in improving their writing skills. A popular AI-learning platform that is used by English professors is Grammarly, which specializes in various types of essay assignments. I've referred students to Grammarly blogs to show them how to correct writing errors such as comma splices, sentence fragments and run-on sentences. Directing them on how the AI-powered writing assistance features on Grammarly can help them become better proofreaders of their work while composing their essays is a technological win.

This is the type of AI-instructional pivot that is needed today, and one that I will gladly integrate to make college learning more enjoyable and beneficial for my students.

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