From data to knowledge to wisdom: coming to grips with AI in the classroom

Artificial Intelligence
Professor Raywat Deonandan
Professor Raywat Deonandan of the Faculty of Health Sciences has been named uOttawa’s 2023 Chair in University Teaching.
The rapidly advancing tide of artificial intelligence poses both a challenge and an opportunity to familiar methods of teaching at the university level.

Professor Raywat Deonandan of the Faculty of Health Sciences will be tackling this wave head on over the coming years, having been named uOttawa’s 2023 Chair in University Teaching

Professor Deonandan will examine the integration of AI tools, particularly GPT4, into writing skills development and the wider process of teaching and learning at both undergraduate and graduate levels. His project is part of the three-year chair awarded annually by the Teaching and Learning Support Service to advance research into teaching and learning that benefits the entire University community. 

New paradigms in teaching and learning 

While most agree that AI tools have the potential to replace current aspects of teaching, the boundaries remain murky. “Tools such as GPT4 represent an existential threat to organic, in-the-flesh teaching,” notes Deonandan. “The question that lingers is: what aspects of teaching should be retained by human beings and what aspects can be downloaded to a machine? We have to come to grips with these questions.” 

What’s clear is that this paradigm shift will require universities to adopt a proactive approach to stay ahead of the exponential growth of AI technology during the coming years. 

Professor Deonandan’s project consists of a trio of studies designed to evaluate the effectiveness of AI tools in enhancing writing and facilitating student learning. An initial scoping review will identify available AI tools, and then a multi-pronged experiment will assess objective appraisals of writing quality based on the use of AI tools. Finally, an uncontrolled trial will monitor changes in how graduate students approach writing tasks when exposed to AI tools.  

Embracing a wave of uncertainty in teaching 

These studies are derived, at least in part, from Professor Deonandan’s teaching philosophy. He sums it up in a quote from Czech author and former president Vaclav Havel: “Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it.” While Deonandan acknowledges the popular view that AI will bring about a crisis in teaching, he finds value in riding the wave of uncertainty, a condition that offers the most potential for unexpected innovation. He notes that “the Chinese characters for crisis and opportunity are the same.” 

By investigating the challenges posed by AI and remaining open to its possibilities, educators can navigate the changing landscape of education. Deonandan emphasizes that AI should be seen as a tool to be leveraged and it is essential that we find ways to work with AI and incorporate it into our pedagogical frameworks. 

“ChatGPT purports to translate or transform data into something useful. We, as humans, need to ask: is this translation appropriate, is it correct? And if so, what should we do with it? The question remains: to what extent can humans work with it.” 

Exploring the potential of AI across the University 

To carry out this research, Deonandan will draw on his formal scientific and pedagogical training along with a tapestry of related experience. His interests in AI and writing are longstanding: he was part of the University’s inaugural AI Committee in 2018, has supervised several AI-focused graduate students, and has published three novels of his own. 

Deonandan aims to produce research papers, a comprehensive website, and a podcast to disseminate knowledge and findings. Additionally, he foresees developing a roadmap to guide universities in incorporating AI into their teaching and learning practices. The project seeks to inform policy decisions and provide insights into the future of education in an AI-driven world. 

The ultimate goal of this year’s Chair in University Teaching project is to gain a better understanding of how AI tools can be integrated into the pedagogical framework. “There’s no question that the university, as an idea, is going to change over the next decade,” says Deonandan. “It behooves us to be ahead of that curve.” 

About uOttawa’s Chair in University Teaching  

The Chair in University Teaching fuels uOttawa’s commitment to instructional excellence by offering a $20,000 annual fund for three years to faculty members to conduct research into innovative teaching and learning practices that will benefit the wider University community. Current chairholders include Andrew Sowinski (2022 Chair), whose project explores analytics and data-driven decision-making to improve student learning outcomes, and Simon Beaudry (2021 Chair), whose project explores ways to meet students’ psychological needs in adverse learning contexts. Chairs contribute ongoing research to uOttawa’s Research Unit on Teaching and Learning