Universities like ‘deer in headlights’ on AI, says edX founder

Metaverse campuses may be needed to alleviate loneliness of ‘personalised learning at scale’ driven by AI, Anant Agarwal tells THE summit

September 27, 2023
Anant Agarwal at the World Academic Summit
Source: Michael Amendolia/University of Sydney
Anant Agarwal at the World Academic Summit

Universities are like “deer in the headlights” in the face of an artificial intelligence revolution that will transform their world, while they may also need to consider creating metaverse campuses as AI brings personalised learning at scale, according to the founder of edX.

Anant Agarwal, who created the massive open online course (Mooc) provider that was backed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and subsequently sold to edtech company 2U, was speaking at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit at the University of Sydney.

Professor Agarwal, chief open education officer of 2U/edX as well as professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, compared the transformation being brought about by generative AI systems such as ChatGPT with the disruption brought about by Moocs.

“I think the AI revolution is going to be equally big, or bigger” for universities, he said in an on-stage interview with THE editor John Gill. “But somehow, I don’t see the movement [in universities] at all.

“I don’t see the level of emphasis being given to it in any university in the world, frankly. People recognise it’s something big out there, but very little is being done about it.

“The corporate world, on the other hand – they get it.”

While companies believe AI will replace jobs, “with universities, it is still a wait and look, a little bit of a deer in the headlights kind of thing” and they “haven’t charged ahead and embraced it like they should”, said Professor Agarwal.

“Part of the reason universities haven’t dived into it in a big way is that its education specificity is still unclear,” he continued.

But AI will impact “how teachers teach, how professors create materials or students learn…everything is going to change”, he added.

And given that the AI transformation has a “much shorter fuse” than that brought by online education, Professor Agarwal said he was “actually pretty concerned we really have not gotten ahead of the ball game”.

Asked what universities should be doing in particular to meet the AI challenge, he highlighted prompt engineering – setting guidelines in interactions with AI and “asking questions in a way you get answers you’re looking for”.

“If you’re a learner, prompt engineering can help you learn better. If you’re a teacher, prompt engineering can help you develop better lesson plans,” Professor Agarwal went on.

Prompt engineering – on which edX is providing courses – has been described by corporate chief executives as “the single biggest skill everybody has to learn”, he added.

And Professor Agarwal highlighted another educational change arising from AI. “What AI is going to do – and where universities need to pay close attention to AI – is that AI will enable us to create personalisation [of learning] at scale,” he said.

At edX, there is a learning tutor – where AI serves as a “personal coach” and can use the “Socratic method” of debating with students by asking them questions.

But “when you look at personalised learning, you realise that personal is also very lonely”, said Professor Agarwal of the prospect of mass learning via online interactions with AI.

That could be countered, though, by augmented reality and virtual reality, he argued. In the metaverse, creating virtual spaces, “my avatar will meet your avatar and the two avatars will have a conversation”, said Professor Agarwal.

“As universities we need to get in on this act. We need to embrace AI…Everybody should have a ChatGPT window [on their computer] and start interacting with ChatGPT,” he added.

He continued: “Then with [augmented reality] and [virtual reality], we need to figure out how universities will need to create virtual spaces in the metaverse…I don’t know if…all the universities are going to have little domains in the metaverse where all the students interact with each other virtually. But I see that as another big thing that is coming up, that can help alleviate the loneliness of AI.”


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Reader's comments (2)

Yet another ad masquerading as an opinion piece. Yesterday Meta today EdX. in the 19080s we used chalk board. then we were told this was baad because we weren't facing the students so we were encouraged to use OHP often through boards disappearing and the OHP being installed in all rooms. So our eyes got fried. Then we were told slides were too static and risked losing engagement so we were nudged into the insipid world of powerpoint. no course was safe unless represented in glorious all singing all dancing Technicolour with content that would make Disney blush. None of which improved students' understanding. Today the educational "technologists are hawking VR and AI as the future of education. I would give my full opinion unfortunately it would be unprintable. chat GPT in particular is a symptom of the lack of substance in education. Its vacuous content harvested fro a sea of dross is seen as insight in the same way witch doctors in [more] primitive cultures would offer concotions made from animals in the insitance that it would install characteristics of those animals in the recepient. No need for that anymore the educational technologist is here and via AI can channel the knowledge of world into your mind for no pain. Just don't try to understand the process. Else you'll realise that like the emperor vendors of these appliances are wearing no clothes.
Remind me again how the education companies doing MOOCS are doing?