“I’ve glimpsed into our future and all I can say is…go back.”
Lately, I’ve been finding myself comparing ChatGPT to PowerPoint in my discussions with students and colleagues about artificial intelligence in higher education. PowerPoint has undeniably had a profound impact on teaching and learning at universities. In particular, it has changed the nature of lecturing and the attention implicit in “attending” a lecture. My view is that the effect has been, on balance, a negative one, validating the concerns of its critics, who have been speaking out since it was introduced.
PowerPoint shifted the attentions of both students and teachers from each other to the slides, and it gave the false impression that an “official” record of the lecture existed in the slide deck. (Today, some lecturers even skip slides and tell students they can read them later on their own.) Many students defer the effort of understanding what was said in the lecture — the process of learning — to that magical period later in the semester known as a “studying for exams” when the presentations they have downloaded (instead of making their own notes) will supposedly make perfect sense to them. The slides do not support lectures, they essentially replace them.
All of this criticism is obvious and has a familiar retort: PowerPoint is a good thing when used correctly. PowerPoint isn’t bad; bad PowerPoint is bad. My response to this is simply that we’ve had thirty years to learn how to use it well and, while in the right hands (and in front of the right eyes) it can, yes, do impressive things, it is very, very rarely in the right hands (and very often slides past glazed eyes). Its overall effect on university lecturing has been a negative one, exacerbating the worst tendencies of mass higher education rather than helping us to maintain our standards in the face of them. Again, these criticisms are obvious and very old and you’re no doubt already bored by them.
I bring it up in conversation to say why I’m not very hopeful that we’ll learn how to “leverage” AI in higher education. Even my fellow writing instructors and librarians seem eager to “embrace” this new technology. I’ve heard it said that it will make English “the hottest programming language on Earth”. The enthusiasm for this technology is overwhelming. I fear it will be deployed widely before it is applied wisely. In a few years, there I’ll be, quaintly lecturing without slides and teaching students to write their own sentences and paragraphs. Chalk and talk; pen and paper. A grumpy old man.
I told you so.