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Preparing for the Classrooms and Workplaces of the Future: Generative AI in edX

A Q&A with Anant Agarwal

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As the chief platform officer of 2U, founder of edX, and an MIT professor, Anant Agarwal has been at the heart of technology change for most of his career. Here, CT asks for his perspectives on the impacts of generative AI in higher education environments and what edX is doing to help lead the way in the productive use of innovative new tools based on the technology.

Mary Grush: Despite some initial hesitation about the technology theoretically usurping humans in the teaching and learning context, do you now see more acceptance and trends that seem to indicate that generative Al can be profoundly good for higher education in the long term?

Anant Agarwal: Yes! Just as the calculator did not displace the learning of mathematics, but rather became a tool that students use to enhance their learning, so will generative AI become a tool for learners and educators. I think of it as a helpful avatar or copilot, and not a replacement for the fundamentals of teaching and learning.

For example, learners will be able to work with and alongside generative AI to help bolster and build their writing skills. But will AI entirely replace the higher-level writing skills, such as applying and making arguments with reason or persuasion? No. Those are uniquely human skills. Generative AI can serve as a tutor or helper, providing prompts, hints, or recommendation summaries — as does Xpert, an AI-powered learning assistant embedded in the edX platform. Learners can engage generative AI to augment the learning experience in a way that is additive to them, by quizzing themselves or reviewing key concepts. Again, I see generative AI as a valuable and accessible tool that doesn't replace the human element in learning or in teaching. 

For educators, generative AI can be an incredible copilot. It can help grade essays, create new content, build new and more diverse problem sets, and even brainstorm creative ways to engage students. All of this makes the learning experience more personalized. But will generative AI replace the richness and dimensions of a human instructor sharing knowledge and teaching with skills imbued with his or her own unique personal perspectives and passion? No. Those are still uniquely human skills.

The underlying concept here is help: Generative AI can help educators as an additive tool, but it won't replace them. As this generation of learners embraces generative AI in their learning experiences and in their lives more broadly, educators will need to follow suit. 

Generative AI can help educators as an additive tool, but it won't replace them.

Grush: How would you address the more foreboding and probably very real concerns you've heard educators express about Al, specifically in higher education environments? How can those in leadership positions focus on, and plan on, the shift to Al in ways that ensure the best of change?

Agarwal: As I discuss AI with colleagues, partners, and learners, I'm reminded a lot of 2012 — aka "the year of the MOOC" — when many people were concerned that digital learning would totally upend traditional in-person learning. At that time, those of us developing MOOCs were especially thoughtful about how we provided digital learning. At edX, we open sourced our technology as Open edX so that everyone could access it. We also worked on creating blended models of learning that enabled learners and faculty on campus to benefit from digital learning as well.

In a similar manner, we want to consider AI carefully, and utilize it responsibly and transparently.

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