Guest Column with Stephen Addison: October 2023

A surfer beginning to surf through the tunnel of a light blue wave beginning to crash down.



We professors have a choice—help create our own futures, or let the future happen to us

Stephen Addison, Professor of Physics,
Dean, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, University of Central Arkansas

SOME SIX MONTHS after first sharing thoughts about chatbots and their potential impacts on the education of students, I have some additional thoughts and reflections on that subject. As an academic Dean, I have been talking to colleagues both on and off my own campus, and have reflected on the issues arising from artificial intelligence in general and chatbots in particular, and I have concluded that our approach to this issue should be much the same as our approaches to other technological advances dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. As we move into the future, progress is inevitable, and we can either let the future happen to us or we can take part in the creation of our own futures.

The role of a professor has changed many times over the long history of universities—the end of the lecture as the primary mode of transmitting knowledge has been rumored since Gutenberg developed his printing press, but through all the changes in the educational process there has been a professor present. And while the methods have changed, the role of the professor is unchanged—that role is to facilitate learning. In the best classrooms, learning is supported using the state-of-the-art technologies that our students will be using in their careers after they leave the academy. But while some professors are on the leading edge of change, there are always those who oppose change at every turn.

As a child of the 1950s, I have lived through most of the changes in the use of technology in the classroom. I grew up in Swansea, Wales, a town then much marked by the effects of World War II. Indeed, wartime rationing had only completely ended two years before my birth, and reminders of defense and devastation were everywhere. I began my education at St. Helen’s school, which opened in 1874. Both my father and grandfather had attended this school, as did my sister’s children at a later date. The school was old, as were the books and desks, and there was no technology—I practiced writing cursive with a dip pen using ink that was mixed daily and added to ink wells at our desks. The teachers were young, well-trained, and enthusiastic, and they prepared us well for the world without using so much as a transparency. My early education was typical for its time, largely focused on English, history, geography, and mathematics, along with some rudimentary science and music. Somewhat unusually, I also began learning Welsh as a second language. By age 11, I had already formed my lifelong habit of finding out everything I could about any topic that interested me.

In 1968, having passed an exam that started a small minority of the population on the path to university, I was assigned to Swansea’s newest secondary school, Cefn Hengoed, that had opened the previous year. This school was well-equipped with the modern teaching laboratories. In that year I began my education in physics with my form teacher (i.e., homeroom teacher), under whom I would study physics for the next seven years; I would also be introduced to electronics as a member of his radio club. In the early years, transistors and other electronic components were the closest we came to modern technologies. I also began learning algebra, geometry, and trigonometry that year. All calculations were by hand, and as we got older our hand calculations were supplemented by log tables and other mathematical tables. I wouldn’t see a four-function calculator until 1974, and at that time they were prohibitively expensive.

In my last two years of high school, I learned to use a slide rule to perform many of the calculations that I needed to perform, learning ever more advanced physics along with calculus, physical chemistry, and organic chemistry. In 1973 we also started learning how to program computers—though this was divorced from our other courses. These computing skills didn’t become useful to me until much later.

Starting University at Cardiff in 1975, I came to use computers and technology increasingly, acquiring my first scientific calculator, then learning to program in FORTRAN. I used computers throughout my graduate education, writing my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Mississippi using WordStar on an Apple II equipped with a Z-80 card to enable it to run CP/M (a direct ancestor of IBM’s PC-DOS.) Then on becoming a faculty member at the University of Central Arkansas in 1984, I was one of three people who were given PC/MS DOS computers as the university began to upgrade from the Commodore PETs that were widely in use at the time. I then went on to become ever more involved with the adoption of technology, getting a university email account in the first batch our campus ever created, and contributing to the development of a variety of programs in computer-related fields.

I SHARE THIS personal history to show you that as technology became embedded in higher education, I was there. Chatbots have been met with fear, loathing, and apprehension in some quarters, and with wholesale acceptance in others. This isn’t new; in fact, it is the way that knowledge commonly advances—this was encapsulated in a 1950 publication by Max Planck, who stated, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Starting my physics degree at Cardiff, we were encouraged to buy scientific calculators which we used throughout the year. Then came the news that we couldn’t use them on exams, though the professors later changed their minds to eliminate only those calculators that had any useful functions. It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense today. Students should master the latest technologies because they will then be able to build on what has come before. In higher education, the potential for academic misconduct is often the reason given for restricting the use of new technologies. However, this restriction sometimes could be translated as: “The professor prefers not to write new exams and assignments.” Let’s be clear about this point—new technologies open up opportunities for academic misconduct if they are applied to old assignments.

Today, courses are frequently built around textbooks, but the goal is not that students learn the book, the goal is that they learn the discipline. I have encouraged students to find books at different levels—the assigned textbook was always appropriate to the level of the course, but students can get an overview from a book written at a lower level, and they can gain context by consulting more advanced books. Increasingly, it is likely that all three levels of book can be replaced using technologies like chatbots. We should be helping students to learn how to exploit these technologies rather than attempting to proscribe their use.

In teaching, my working practice has been that every student deserves their own assignments. As I repeat courses, the old assignments become the new worked examples, and my old courses remain online, complete with assignments, keys, and posted solutions. New technologies enable us to develop classroom assignments that would have been research projects in earlier years. In spring 2024, I will be teaching a course in “Random Variables, Probability, and Stochastic Processes” for engineering students. The students will have varying degrees of knowledge about some of the key topics depending on which courses they’ve taken. Other topics will be new to almost all. I’m planning to help students perform chatbot engineering to assess their current knowledge of the topics of which I know they will have some knowledge; they will then learn how to use the chatbot to develop their state of knowledge to a next level of understanding. I will also be working with the students to show them how they can use a chatbot to assemble the tools that they need in order to solve problems related to their new knowledge. This is how they will work in the future, so this should be the way they will do their MS and Ph.D. degrees. At this stage, I anticipate that I will use a handful of such assignments in the first offering of the course—but I already know that I will make increasing use of such assignments in subsequent semesters.

So, I now come to my fellow teachers with a question: What are you going to do? You have three choices. You can attempt to stem the tide and likely drown; you can teach your class and ignore the new technologies (but some students will use them anyway); or you can ride the waves and see where they take you. I grew up at the seashore—I’m always going to ride the waves.