Course encourages students to grapple with AI implications

· 6 min read

Course encourages students to grapple with AI implications

A cozy yet intellectually stimulating lecture theater environment is depicted, with a focus on a bald, tall, and thin professor with a short, brown-re.jpg
Adrian Wisnicki | DALL-E
Adrian Wisnicki, associate professor of English and digital humanities program coordinator, created this image with artificial intelligence, feeding it prompts to depict a classroom led by a professor with similar physical features.

The world was collectively agog as Open AI recently unveiled its new artificial intelligence video tool, Sora. Users shared colorful 3D animations and pirate ships floating on mahogany waves of coffee. A few days later, Sora was old news and Groq, an AI language tool, claimed global headlines for lightning-fast capabilities that leave ChatGPT in the proverbial dust.

And in a University of Nebraska–Lincoln classroom, Adrian Wisnicki quickly tweaked plans to incorporate these developments into class discussions — something he does often. Using cutting-edge AI tools, literature and contemporary films and articles, Wisnicki encourages students to grapple with questions related to AI and technology in the course Being Human in the Digital Age. Wisnicki teaches the class each semester, homing in on practices and questions, including the sometimes-thorny ethical issues surrounding technology, especially artificial intelligence.

“How do we take full advantage of AI, but do so responsibly? What does AI consciousness mean? Where does the human begin or end? What happens when we use advanced prompting strategies to interact with AI?” Wisnicki said. “Those kinds of questions have proved interesting to students. The more technology advances, the more such questions take on urgency. Thinking about those questions surrounding artificial intelligence can be really difficult, actually, because there are all kinds of implications. But those same questions have proved to be a huge hit with students.”

Adrian Wisnicki leads class.
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
Wisnicki leads his class, Being Human in the Digital Age, in an Avery Hall classroom.

As a digital humanist, the associate professor of English has long engaged with technology, using its advancements to bring historical documents and critical analysis to the world. Wisnicki started teaching a course focused more on technology as depicted in literature about a decade ago. With the rapid pace of developments in robotics, online surveillance, disinformation and, now, artificial intelligence, the class continuously evolved, turning a critical gaze toward emerging tech.

“The training I have as a literature professor comes in handy, because we’re trained to think critically, to ask difficult questions, penetrating questions, questions that overturn the status quo,” Wisnicki said. “The class went from being a more traditional literature course to thinking about how the rapid advances are impacting society and culture and how the evolution of tech was being represented. At this point, I follow the absolute latest developments in technology, especially AI, then we cover them in my course, often as they’re happening. We’re learning to engage with large language models in sophisticated ways, based on the latest research and strategies I pick up from across the internet.”

However, Wisnicki also tackles the ethical dimensions of AI development. He wants his students to engage with AI critically. This is where his background as a humanist comes to the center.

“As humanists, we’re ideally poised to introduce students to artificial intelligence, because our domains include language and culture,” he said. “By the nature of our training, we have the critical skills necessary to interact optimally with AI chat platforms like ChatGPT. Our scholarship regularly compels us to ask important questions about topics like bias and truth. Understanding these concepts is fundamental to interacting with AI responsibly. Students need to know the problems, the limitations, the ethical issues, so that they factor such things into whatever work they do with AI.”

Indeed, Wisnicki sees it as a duty of his discipline, English, to lead the way at Nebraska in framing how students interact with and use AI.

“I want my students to feel that my course on AI is the one course at UNL that is absolutely essential to their studies,” he said. “I’m teaching them about AI in 2024 because I want them to become fully conversant in the technology. I want them to be leaders, but critical and thoughtful leaders, in the effective and responsible application of AI not only on this campus, but in whatever professions they pursue. Knowing how to use AI and automation effectively — a process that begins in my course — will put them far ahead of the pack when they apply for jobs.”

ordan Harper listens as Adrian Wisnicki teaches his Being Human in an Digital Age course.
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
Jordan Harper listens to discussion in the course Being Human in the Digital Age.

Wisnicki tackles this work from the ground up. In a recent class period, he assigned students into small groups to discuss a very basic question he posed in the homework leading up to class: “Is AI good or bad for humanity?” He raises this more abstract question early in the semester as a way of kick-starting extended discussions that will evolve over the following weeks. After quietly discussing their answers, students began sharing with the rest of the class both the drawbacks and benefits of AI — the inherent biases, its use as a helper, the possible displacement of meaningful art, its potential to maximize efficiency in work, deception and academic cheating.

“Students will come in with a kind of undefined, but what they think is a very clear idea in their mind, of the boundary between humans and AI, the good and bad of AI, surface-level ideas they’ve skimmed from social media,” Wisnicki said. “But what they discover as they investigate these questions is that the answers are very complex. Boundaries are very hard to define, and they keep moving.”

The constant advancement of technology requires a rewrite of the syllabus each semester. Wisnicki is constantly collecting articles and other materials he finds interesting, reviewing them for trends that become the foci of later classes.

“Any articles older than three, four, five months begin to feel ancient in this course,” Wisnicki said. “Once the course is running, some of the topics depend on what’s happening, and I’ll add or switch up the syllabus.”

In spring 2023, for instance, when Wisnicki saw the attention that ChatGPT was gaining nationally and internationally, he immediately integrated it into his course.

“We started exploring it both as a tool and as a conceptual phenomenon that could shed light on the nature of human and AI consciousness,” he said. “My students were definitely among the earliest adopters. Now, we often examine the newest AI technologies within days of their release.

“The pace of AI evolution in 2024 is incredible, so it’s essential that students have a knowledgeable and experienced guide into the world of AI.”

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