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The Implications of Generative AI for Higher Education: I—Potential

Generative AI can have many beneficial applications for institutions of higher education, helping to personalize and optimize the learning experience while relieving administrative burden. 

Since Prof. John McCarthy coined the term artificial intelligence in 1955, it has slowly evolved from use in simulations and logic to sensors, communication tools, autonomous gadgets, robots and advances in deep learning. The emergence of large language models such as ChatGPT that enable humanlike conversations has made AI accessible to the general population rather than just scientists and AI experts. The exponential increase in its use over the past year has led to increased focus on genAI with predictions of it reducing the acquisition of knowledge to technology-enabled cheating and completely obviating critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Before reaching conclusions of doom, one is reminded of similar predictions following the invention of the Gutenberg press, the radio, the internet and even the calculator. Through the ages, technological advances have been greeted by extremes: as agents of destruction or as a panacea for all that ailed society at that time. In similar fashion, genAI is being treated as either an existential threat to humanity or the tool through which all ills can be mitigated. Most of the hype and panic around its application in higher ed has centered on students using it to cheat and otherwise gain an unfair advantage. This reaction, however, has far more to do with our inability to design assessments that produce true evidence of learning. While the discussion about academic integrity, and creativity and critical thinking, is essential and needs to be a focus going forward, the discussions to date have largely obscured the tremendous opportunities that these tools can also bring to learning and the development, acquisition and transfer of knowledge.

Because of its ability to deliver at scale while simultaneously enabling personalization, genAI has the potential to revolutionize access and equity of opportunity. Some of the ways in which it could positively impact higher education include:

Personalized learning

GenAI platforms can enhance learning by building on a learner's strengths rather than deficits, moving away from the assumption of a common background and level of understanding that inevitably results in advanced learners being bored and those who need more attention being left behind. Adaptive platforms can calibrate subject-level coursework and examples, enabling learners to master concepts and competencies through a pace and personalized learning path that consider background and prior learning. 


Even the most dedicated instructor and mentor cannot assist every student 24/7/365. GenAI-powered tutors can not only remove schedule constraints but also identify each learner’s style, background level and strengths, tailoring the interactions to best meet their needs. The availability of this level of tutoring also furthers the democratization of learning, addressing the current inequity of private tutors only being available to a privileged few.

Engagement platforms

While learning is often best accomplished through engagement and interaction outside classrooms and through group activities, this is often not possible for learners whose schedules, responsibilities or life situation preclude this. A genAI platform’s ability to engage can provide critically needed interaction and stimulation and can be invaluable for those who identify as first-generation or lower-income students and for whom language of instruction might be a barrier. In addition, these platforms could also enable proactive and just-in-time intervention, generating alerts based on progress and providing valuable and timely encouragement and guidance.

Language assistance

While language translation and grammar tools can help students, there are enhanced levels of assistance that could be even more powerful such as the genAI’s ability to serve as a virtual assistant in developing drafts from initial ideas, organizing thoughts and even developing arguments through virtual debates. Just as a learner synthesizes and organizes hypotheses through discussions with others, especially those already skilled in the field, all learners may be able to benefit from AI-enabled debating partners and assistants that provide prompts to improve drafts and thoughts just as human intervention enables improvement through directed repetition.

Brainstorming and contextual learning with critical analysis 

AI-based platforms could serve as sounding boards to better structure and form arguments as well as provide contextual learning opportunities by simulating discussions. Consider the power of engaging with an AI-enabled virtual Robespierre in a discussion about the French Revolution, or Socrates about logic and truth, or Locke about the principles of classic liberalism. In a similar vein, in conjunction with XR/VR, learners could be transported into a range of historical situations, not just to learn through immersion but also to think critically and view the events through their own eyes rather than through the bias of that time in history. The use of genAI in such contexts could catalyze critical thinking and analysis at levels heretofore not possible.

Immersive exposure

In addition to providing unique interdisciplinary learning scenarios that build on immersive experiences, genAI-integrated AR/VR/XR platforms could provide tremendous co-curricular immersive opportunities for learners for whom visits to the world's museums, art galleries and sociocultural experiences were not possible, melding virtual visits with historically accurate immersive scenarios, enabling all learners irrespective of resource constraints to gain from them.

Addressing special needs

Many current learners face insurmountable barriers because of the lack of experienced instructors, time and specialized resources. While AI platforms cannot address all possible issues, they can make possible the appropriate adaptation of materials, presentation and pace to best suit each learner, addressing specific challenges including those of the neurodiverse.

Holistic support

GenAI platforms can assist in providing 24/7/365 holistic support personalized to the individual, enabling not just timely intervention but also encouragement and interaction as needed, thereby building scaffolding tailored to the individual's wellness needs. The ability to create virtual communities and engagement circles already possible online can be further augmented through AI platforms, not as substitutes for face-to-face human interactions but as supplementary means and mechanisms that make possible meaningful interactions that would otherwise be restricted like in the case of illness or geographic isolation.

While these points focused on individual learners, there is also significant potential for genAI-based platforms to positively impact and transform other aspects of teaching and learning, ranging from direct assistance to faculty and preparation of material to re-envisioning the process itself. Some of these include:

Increasing interaction

Large classes often cause the instructor to revert to being a sage on the stage rather than the more effective coach, facilitator or enabler of learning. GenAI can effectively help the instructor increase their impact and effectiveness through enhanced interactivity supplementing shorter periods of one-on-one engagement with adaptive personalized learning and by helping instructors develop group and active learning scenarios to replace lectures.

Course curation and updating

A common complaint is that many instructors use the same material year after year, often resulting in course content that is out of date at best and obsolete at worst. GenAI platforms can help instructors rapidly create and curate continuously updated course content with activities based on the most recent advances in knowledge, thereby ensuring course content and curricula are fresh and tailored to the specific demographics and needs of the most current class.


While most instructors are intent on providing comprehensive feedback to students through appropriate assessment, class size and the pressure of other responsibilities often precludes this. In addition, the use of a one-size-fits-all basis is not as effective as individualized assessment based on personalized assignments and progression. GenAI-based platforms associated with adaptive learning mechanisms can help develop and implement of more effective and efficient assessment that is also helpful in the overall process of learning.

Early warning and analytics

 AI-based analytics can not only assist the instructor in assessing progress, providing early warning of need and intervention points, but can also bring together data from diverse activities to ensure the learner is supported as, and when, needed with timely nudges, additional materials designed for them, encouragement and reminders of critical actions and events. The comprehensive analysis of combined data can also help identify trends and critical blockage points and suggest alternatives to enable greater success. This analytics can also personalize schedules and pathways to best fit the individual’s strengths.

Such considerations can help in moving from an extremely constrained, one-size-fits-all, assembly-line system to one that is personalized, focuses on learning and competencies rather than time in seat, enhances critical thinking and synthesis skills, and provides greater opportunities to learn by doing through simulation and immersion. In addition to transforming research and discovery, which is a topic in itself, genAI could also enhance the overall enterprise of higher education in aspects such as recruitment, admissions and registration, scheduling and resource allocation, communications, personalizing considerations of financial aid, and supporting plant operations, enabling institutions to better focus on meeting higher education’s true mission: supporting discovery, enquiry and learning.

While genAI has significant potential to positively transform higher education, it is not without its complexities, including concerns related to bias, inequities, false information, privacy and security, among others. It is critical that they be given due thought and addressed appropriately. Ultimately, just as with other technology, the power of control rests with us and we, as a community, must design, develop and implement genAI to ensure its benefits are maximized and its detriments and concerns are not just minimized but controlled through appropriate safeguards.