/ 25 June 2023

Effective methods of teaching students in the age of AI

Artificial Intelligence 4ir
The key to overcoming the self-inflicted problems and threats of technology lies in our own intellect. (Getty Images)

Academics at institutions of higher education are concerned about the development of artificial intelligence (AI) generative language models like ChatGPT and the threat the technology poses to academic assessment. 

ChatGPT is one of the most efficient technologies students use to do their academic work and assessments. However, one of the problems of using it is that students use it unethically, resulting in plagiarism, on the one hand; on the other hand, they are uncritical of the information the technology produces. 

As a result, most universities are looking at ways to revolutionise how assessments ought to be carried out in their institutions to mitigate the above mentioned problems. As much as this move is commendable, I argue that the focus should be on revolutionising the approach to teaching in its entirety. 

The goal of universities in the 21st century should be to teach students to be critical and creative thinkers, to enable them to navigate our social milieu characterised by the proliferation of socially disruptive technologies

I contend that, until now, the approach to teaching at our various higher education institutions has focused extensively on what the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire calls “the banking concept of education”. However, in this piece, I argue that we must turn towards a collaborative teaching approach in our lecture rooms, if we aim to develop students to be relevant in this technological era.

Before I show why I think the collaborative teaching approach is necessary, based on my experiences of using this approach to help students become critical and creative thinkers, it is pertinent that I explain what Freire’s “banking concept of education” means. 

This approaches teaching from an authoritarian perspective. The teacher is considered the knower and the students are merely recipients of the teacher’s knowledge. In this approach, the teacher has the store of knowledge and they deposit this knowledge into the students’ minds. In the end, there is a specific expectation from the teacher that the students regurgitate the information that has been deposited in their minds during an exam. 

The “banking concept” creates a classroom environment where the role of the lecturer is to teach and the students are expected to receive what is taught to them. The students only listen to what the lecturer has to say — the lecturer thinks, while the students consume the thoughts. 

In as much as this teaching methodology makes provision for examination, which is an essential aspect of education, it is somewhat obsolete in the current technological era. In our epoch, characterised by ubiquitous sophisticated AI language generative models such as ChatGPT, developing students to be critical and creative thinkers is a prerequisite. This is because, for students to succeed in this era, they have to think differently from ChatGPT, and they can only think differently if they learn to think critically and creatively. 

The banking concept does not allow students to think critically and creatively because they become overly dependent on the knowledge of their teachers; thus, they become passive participants in their learning process. On the contrary, a collaborative teaching methodology, which I employed during my time as a temporary lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg, allowed my students to be active participants and completely involved in their learning process. 

One of the ways I utilised the collaborative teaching methodology in my class of over just under 150 students was by making them do class debates and start the class by recapping previous lectures. At the start of my first lecture, I told the students my preferred class dynamics and informed them of activities that would be done in class. They were made aware that there would be debates and class engagements. 

Furthermore, I told the students the reasons for my preferred method of teaching and learning. Afterwards, I divided them into groups. In the period that I taught the students, we had a few formal and informal debates and they were all engaging and exciting. 

In addition, I managed three excellent tutors who worked with me in teaching the module. I ensured that my tutors taught the students philosophical writing and reading skills (since it was a philosophy module on AI ethics) during tutorials and consultations, while I taught the course materials.

My approach to teaching proved to be very efficient in meeting my set goals, based on the following observations. 

First, the approach allowed maximum participation in my classes. This boosted students’ confidence and almost all of them began contributing during lectures, by asking and answering questions and fostering class discussions.

Second, even though my classes were after lunch, I always had a reasonable audience. Furthermore, because the classes were engaging, students did not leave the lecture hall while I was still teaching. 

Third, making students debate among themselves, and respond to each other’s arguments in class, taught them how to criticise each other by finding flaws in each other’s arguments, spontaneously and without committing the fallacy of ad-hominem. 

Last, my students produced exceptional essays. Most of them wrote essays that clearly showed rigorous critical and creative thinking skills, which was the goal I had set out to achieve at the start of the course. 

Why is the above exposition important, one may ask? 

The use of AI, such as ChatGPT, can only be helpful to students if they use it concomitantly with critical thinking skills. Depending on how you look at it, it is unfortunate or fortunate that ChatGPT, and other models, are here to stay. 

According to my colleagues Benjamin Smart and Catherine Botha, ChatGPT does not always provide facts. Thus, it requires constant checking. However, students would be unable to pick out inaccurate and incorrect information provided by the algorithm if they were not critical thinkers. I contend that it takes critical thinking skills to figure out errors in academic writing, especially those from the “smarter” algorithms. 

ChatGPT can be used to assist students in producing quality research work. However, that cannot be done only by the algorithm. For the algorithm to produce quality work, it requires the collaboration of students. Their collaboration entails their critical thinking and creativity. 

However, students can only be critical thinkers and be creative if they have been taught to be. As a result, the focus of education in higher institutions must be to equip students to think critically and creatively. To achieve that, academics and lecturers must turn to teaching methodologies and approaches such as the ones I have spelt out. 

In conclusion, teaching students to be creative and critical thinkers is beneficial to them both in the here and now, while they are still at colleges and universities, and in the future when they graduate and go into the world of work. 

According to the World Economic Forum 2023 report on jobs, the future of work requires critical and creative thinkers. Thus, teaching students these skills should be the goal of education in our social milieu, to prepare students for the future of work.

Edmund Terem Ugar is a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.