Texas Prepares Higher Education for AI

When discussing the proliferation of artificial intelligence in society, Taylor Eighmy views it not just as an opportunity but as a significant responsibility.

The head of The University of Texas at San Antonio emphasized the institution’s duty to ensure its students are well-prepared for the evolving demands of their future workplaces in relation to this rapidly advancing technology.

“Competency in AI is sought across industries, whether it be in healthcare, finance, energy, or national security entities like those present in San Antonio,” Eighmy informed The Texas Tribune. “It’s a universal ask.”

For this reason, the public university, catering to 34,000 students, revealed plans earlier this year to establish a novel college focused on AI, cybersecurity, computing, and data science. As the college is still in the development phase, it aims to be among the pioneering ventures of its nature in the nation. The target launch for UTSA’s new college is set for fall 2025.

In line with UTSA’s projections, Texas is anticipated to witness a near 27% surge in AI and data science employment in the coming decade. Nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 35% increase in data science roles over the same period. UTSA leaders stress the importance of not just honing students’ skills but also nurturing their capacity to engage in the field’s conversation as it progresses.

“We aim for students not to grapple with AI in their early careers but to seamlessly integrate and influence its utilization within their organizations,” declared Jonathon Halbesleben, dean of UTSA’s business school and co-chair of the task force steering the new college’s establishment.

Recent dialogue in higher education concerning AI has primarily revolved around generative AI, applications, and search engines capable of generating content from prompts. The advent of ChatGPT, a free chatbot delivering conversational responses to queries, triggered universities and faculty to explore the impact this technology might have on teaching and learning, highlighting concerns that students might resort to technology shortcuts for academic tasks.

However, state higher education authorities are looking to the future. With AI’s integration into daily functions in unprecedented ways, universities in Texas and nationwide are contemplating measures to ensure faculty are adept at handling the technology and students are well-equipped for its application post-graduation.

“The rapid advancement and firm establishment of this technology dictate the need for institutions to align curricula with technological evolution and industry needs,” noted Harrison Keller, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state agency managing academic institutions in Texas.

Maneuvering beyond the speculation, Texas state authorities will initiate an in-depth evaluation of AI activities at community colleges and universities, aiming to establish a collaborative framework to expedite AI integration across all academic institutions.

“Identifying the requisite skills for faculty engagement with this evolving technology and preparing students for the global workforce are top priorities for educational institutions,” remarked Michelle Singh, assistant commissioner for digital learning at the coordinating board.

UTSA stands as a pivotal player in the domain but isn’t acting alone. Other institutions, like the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Austin, have rolled out advanced degree programs and brief certificate courses to address the AI demand. Houston Community College also stands out as Texas’ inaugural community college to provide a bachelor’s degree program in AI and robotics.

“Enhancing accessibility and inclusivity in AI education is a paramount objective for us as a community college,” elucidated Margaret Ford Fisher, interim chancellor of HCC. “Our mission is to nurture talent that will shape the future in this promising realm.”

2024 has been designated by UT-Austin as the “Year of AI,” signaling elevated emphasis on AI research and the launch of an online master’s program in AI this year with an affordable price point of around $10,000, an economical option in the AI graduate program landscape.

Across the state, educational institutions are internally forming committees to explore AI’s optimization in university operations, ranging from student support services to instructional enhancements. Resource guides are also being crafted to aid faculty in adapting to AI’s classroom impact.

“We must willingly engage with AI, adapt to its nuances, and enrich our comprehension over time to leverage its benefits,” urged Marty Alvarado, vice president of postsecondary education and training at Jobs for the Future, an organization dedicated to enhancing education and workforce prospects for students.

While the academia emphasizes the necessity of integrating AI discourse, concerns arise about burdening faculty already juggling numerous responsibilities.

“The question looms on where the resources will stem from,” questioned Lance Eaton, director of faculty development and innovation at College Unbound. Eaton also maintains a newsletter focusing on AI and higher education. “Faculty were strained even before this transition occurred.”

Recognizing the oversight in properly supporting faculty amid AI’s prevalence, the coordinating board is set to roll out a series of webinars targeting faculty statewide, enlightening them on fundamental AI concepts. Meanwhile, four Texas institutions are crafting an AI essentials course designed to empower faculty with practical applications of AI within educational settings, spanning from chatbot integration to task and research development through AI.

“It’s imperative to back faculty consistently across varying academic landscapes, from small community colleges to large research universities, to ensure streamlined integration,” Keller accentuated. “The aim is to prevent redundancy in AI learning frameworks among institutions.”

Future AI dialogues must also encompass input from employers and students, fostering collaboration and mutual understanding of evolving industry needs and student proficiency in AI utilization.

“Our collective progress hinges on collaborative efforts between academia, industry, and students,” reiterated Keller.

While advocating for proactive discussions on AI’s trajectory, Eaton underlines the significance of universities pacing their adoption of AI cautiously, given existing limitations in its applicability and interpretation of data input.

“AI’s swift proliferation warrants a cautious approach, as its efficacy and reliability remain under scrutiny in various domains,” Eaton pointed out.

He also expressed skepticism towards institutions swiftly establishing AI programs without thorough evaluation.

“Current trends may point to a hasty commercial pursuit rather than a comprehensive curriculum overhaul acknowledging AI’s impact,” Eaton cautioned.

As AI permeates various sectors, Eaton stresses the enduring value of critical thinking, analytics, communication, and traditional liberal arts skills, anticipating their pivotal role in navigating AI’s complexities and maximizing its potential.

Validate exasserted. “It is imperative that students develop robust skills to adapt and engage with evolving AI technologies.”

At UTSA, leaders like Halbesleben are at the forefront of AI integration, working diligently to equip all students with the necessary knowledge to navigate the evolving landscape of AI’s impact on the workforce.

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

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