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How Texas is preparing higher education for AI

Texas colleges are thinking about how to prepare students for a changing workforce and an already overburdened faculty for new challenges in the classroom.
Posted: 7:46 AM, Mar 12, 2024
Updated: 2024-03-12 08:46:03-04
The University of Texas at San Antonio is planning to launch a new college largely dedicated to artificial intelligence. The new college, expected to open in 2025, would be one of the first of its kind in the country.

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(Texas Tribune) — When Taylor Eighmy talks to people about the growth of artificial intelligence in society, he doesn’t just see an opportunity — he feels a jolt of responsibility.

The president of The University of Texas at San Antonio said the Hispanic-serving institution on the northwest side of the Alamo City needs to make sure its students are ready for what their future employers expect them to know about this rapidly changing technology.

“It doesn't matter if you enter the health industry, banking, oil and gas, or national security enterprises like we have here in San Antonio,” Eighmy told The Texas Tribune. “Everybody's asking for competency around AI.”

It’s one of the reasons the public university, which serves 34,000 students, announced earlier this year that it is creating a new college dedicated to AI, cyber security, computing and data science. The new college, which is still in the planning phase, would be one of the first of its kind in the country. UTSA wants to launch the new college by fall 2025.

According to UTSA, Texas will see a nearly 27% increase in AI and data science jobs over the next decade. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects data science jobs nationally will increase by 35% over that time period. Leaders at UTSA say they don’t just want students to be competent in the field, but also prepare them to be a part of the conversation as it grows and evolves.

“We don't want [students] to spend time early in their careers just trying to figure out AI,” said Jonathon Halbesleben, dean of UTSA’s business school who is co-chairing a task force to establish the new college. “We'd love to have them be career-ready to jump right into the ability to sort of shape AI and how it's used in their organizations.”

Over the past year, much of the conversation around AI in higher education has centered around generative AI, applications and search engines that can create texts, images or data based on prompts. The arrival of ChatGPT, a free chatbot that provides conversational answers to users’ questions, sent universities and faculty scrambling to understand how this new technology will affect teaching and learning. It also raised concerns that students might be using the new technology as a shortcut to write papers or complete other assignments.

But many state higher education leaders are thinking beyond that. As AI becomes a part of everyday life in new, unpredictable ways, universities across Texas and the country are also starting to consider how to ensure faculty are keeping up with the new technology and students are ready to use it when they enter the workforce.

“This is a technology that's clearly here to stay and advancing rapidly,” said Harrison Keller, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state agency that oversees colleges and universities in Texas. “Having institutions collaborate, share content [and] work with [the] industry so that the content really reflects the state of the art is really critical. It’s moving much faster than anyone anticipated.”

Next month, the state agency plans to start an assessment of AI activity at all community colleges and four-year universities in the state and use it to build a collaborative system that can help all schools get up to speed with AI.

“A majority of institutions are trying to identify what are the skills that are necessary for our faculty to be able to engage with this new evolving technology [and] to provide experiences for our students to get acclimated with skills that are going to be required in the global workforce,” said Michelle Singh, assistant commissioner for digital learning with the coordinating board.

UTSA isn’t the only school coming up with completely new programs. Other schools, including the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Austin, have launched graduate programs and short-term certificate programs. Houston Community College recently became the first community college in Texas to offer a bachelor’s degree program in AI and robotics.

“As a community college, we’re forging new paths to ensure AI education is accessible and inclusive,” said Margaret Ford Fisher, interim chancellor of HCC, in a press release last fall. “The goal is to cultivate talent that will shape our future in this burgeoning field that has so much promise for good.”

UT-Austin recently declared 2024 the “Year of AI,” highlighting an increased focus on researching the technology and the creation of a new online master’s degree program in AI that launched this year. The program has a price tag close to $10,000, making it one of the most affordable AI graduate programs in the country.

Elsewhere around the state, colleges and universities have created internal committees to see how AI can be used to improve university operations, including identifying at-risk students, increasing retention and boosting student learning. Others are creating resource guides for faculty to help them adapt to how AI is impacting the classroom.

“We just need to jump in and start wrestling with it, and we need to be able to adapt and evolve it and build our understanding of it,” said Marty Alvarado, vice president of postsecondary education and training at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that focuses on improving education, the workforce and economic opportunities for students.

While other experts agree that university leaders need to be having these conversations among themselves and with students, they’re concerned adapting to AI might become another burden placed on already exhausted faculty.

“Where does that time and money come from?” said Lance Eaton, director of faculty development and innovation at College Unbound, a national nonprofit focused on adult learners. He also writes a newsletter on AI and higher education. “Because they were already overtaxed well before this happened.”

Keller acknowledged that many of the conversations about AI have “glossed over” the need to appropriately support faculty.

This spring, the coordinating board is launching a series of webinars to educate faculty across the state on general AI concepts. Meanwhile, four Texas institutions — UT-Austin, UNT, Austin Community College and San Jacinto Community College — are creating an AI essentials course for Texas faculty that goes beyond the theoretical and provides faculty with direct ways to apply AI in their classrooms, curriculums, lesson plans and assignments. Possible topics include how to use chatbots in the classroom and how to build out class assignments and research topics with AI.

“We have to support faculty at scale across different contexts, small community colleges and large research universities,” Keller said. “The idea is you don't want every institution to have to reinvent the wheel.”

Keller said any future conversations about AI need to also involve employers and students. Employers need to share with schools how their needs are changing and schools need to acknowledge that students are often more skilled in using AI than faculty and administrators.

“We will all be better off if we are working on this together,” he said.

Eaton said while it's important for higher education to be having conversations about the future of AI, it’s equally important for universities to make sure they’re not rushing to embrace the new technology too quickly, especially since there are still clear limitations in terms of how it can be used and how it interprets and processes information that is put into it.

“AI has become ubiquitous in a lot of places in a very short amount of time,” he said. “There are ways it’s helpful in a simple way, but there are lots of ways it fails at sophistication … it's still not something we can really trust people's lives with.”

For instance, Eaton expressed some skepticism with schools that are creating completely new AI programs.

“Right now, it feels like it’s a money grab,” he said. “If you want to see an institution that's taking this seriously, it’ll be the ones that are actually looking at the curriculum, looking at their programs and say, ‘what does this curriculum look like if AI is a more ubiquitous tool?’”

As AI develops and spreads, Eaton said critical thinking, analytics, communication and strong reading and writing skills that students learn through traditional liberal arts degrees will be key to navigating the technology and recognizing where it can be useful.

Keller agreed. He said employers have emphasized to him that students will need those skills to learn and adapt to emerging AI technologies.

AT UTSA, leaders like Halbesleben say they are trying to both place themselves at the forefront of AI and figure out how to prepare all students for the ripple effects this technology will have on the rest of the workforce.

“It'll be an important challenge for us to make sure that though we are concentrating our capacity in one college, we still need to maintain our ability to ensure all of our students have that sort of understanding,” he said.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Houston Community College, Institute for Economic Development - UTSA, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/12/texas-higher-education-ai/.

"How Texas is preparing higher education for AI" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.