Instructional Designers Address Challenges, Promote Equity in Artificial Intelligence

This photo was created using generative AI with the following prompt: “technology network reaching out to multiple people from behind standing in rice field.

This photo was created using generative AI with the following prompt: “technology network reaching out to multiple people from behind standing in rice field.

Marchch 7, 2024  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of stories exploring the use of artificial intelligence in higher education.

AI in Higher Education

Instructional designers at the University of Arkansas Global Campus are a naturally inquisitive bunch, and it seems like everyone in their world is talking about the use of artificial intelligence in higher education. The instructional designers have all done a lot of reading, watching, listening and talking to keep up with what tools are available and what they can do with them.

It's all part of the process of assisting instructors to create the best content possible to ensure students learn in online degree programs. They are also sharing their knowledge about large language models through a podcast they started last year geared toward instructors.

James Martin, instructional designer, remembered hearing about ChatGPT in the fall of 2022 and making a mental note to check it out.

"I remember my son and I were here in the kitchen," he said. "I had been reading a book on existentialism, and I asked it to define existentialism. I felt like it did a pretty decent job. And then we just started asking it all kinds of random stuff.

"And at the time I was just tinkering with it, I didn't think about it as a useful thing for instructional design," Martin continued. "I just thought about it as kind of like a personal assistant, sort of like Siri."


Learning to Use AI

In addition to exploring and discussing on their own, the Global Campus instructional designers have taken part in more formal educational offerings about how to use AI. Ken Muessig, instructional design manager, signed his team up for an online course delivered by Auburn University on artificial intelligence in higher education.

The Global Campus supports the academic colleges and other units in the development, design and delivery of online programs. Enrollment in online degree programs at the U of A has grown by 153% over the past 10 years, according to the Global Campus Annual Report. The instructional design team assists with the development of both credit and non-credit programs offered by the U of A. The Global Campus Professional and Workforce Development division reported 2,205 total course registrations for fiscal year 2023.

Instructional designer Camie Wood said team members started dabbling in ChatGPT when it was released in late 2022 and continued experimenting in spring 2023.

"We started trying to see what it could do and what its capabilities were," she said.

The instructional designers explored several tools other than ChatGPT. Wood rattled off a roll call of several, including some not-so-great ones that have already fallen by the wayside.

"There are responsible, although I'm not sure that's the right word, there are effective ways to use it in education on both the instruction and the student side," Martin said. "We should take advantage of those."

Artificial intelligence in higher education has been on a slow roll for years, Muessig said, leading up to the explosion of tools led by ChatGPT.

"We had Grammarly and all sorts of things that help you with your grammar and spelling," he said. "But by the end of November (2022), I started seeing it in higher education journals, such as Inside Higher Education."

An early version of ChatGPT included its own AI-detection tool because of the concern among teachers about cheating, Muessig said, and he was looking at it to see how accurate it was, but then the company pulled the tool because it did such a poor job.

Mandy Eppley, senior instructional designer with the Global Campus Professional and Workforce Development division, attended a conference last year with multiple sessions focusing on AI in higher education as well as webinars on the topic.

"This is the future of how we are going to work," she said. "So, you are either going to get on board or you are going to get left behind."


Spreading the Word

Instructional designers, from left, Camie Wood, Alex Dowell, Amalie Holland and James Martin record an episode of the Pedagogy Toolkit.
Instructional designers, from left, Camie Wood, Alex Dowell, Amalie Holland and James Martin record an episode of the Pedagogy Toolkit.

Several of the instructional designers started a podcast last year called the Pedagogy Toolkit, and they have no trouble finding topics. They could talk for days about using artificial intelligence in higher education, not to mention a wide variety of concepts relating to online instruction and teaching in general.

"By May of that year, we recorded our first episode on using AI in the classroom and how it's going to affect us," Wood said.

That was Episode 4, in which the podcasters talked about AI in education, "the good, the scary, the practical." In Episode 16, two of the hosts mark the first anniversary of ChatGPT in fall 2023, describing its development to that point and what might be expected in the future.

Not all of the instructional design team members work on the podcast, but they all are dedicated to learning more about AI as it continues to evolve.


Instructor Interaction

Once the instructional designers began digging into AI programs, they initiated conversations with instructors.

"The first couple of months, it was just kicking it around and seeing what works and doesn't work," said Bob Hinton, senior instructional designer. "Then, it was having specific conversations with instructors to see how they want to use AI. Do they want to use AI in the course?"

Martin said once he talked with instructors about the possibilities and what he learned in the Auburn course, no one said they did not want to use AI because of ethical issues. They were interested in setting ground rules, and the Auburn course was helpful with that aspect. The course described a stoplight analogy, he explained, in which red means you can't use AI at all and green means use it in any way you find useful. Martin said most instructors fall into the yellow stoplight range, in which they are interested in finding specific ways students can use AI for particular learning objectives.

"Some people decide AI is great for idea generation, maybe for an outline, maybe for a first draft, but not for the whole final project product," he said.


Equity of Access

The instructional designers also raised an issue that could grow in importance as the AI tools evolve. Many offer free versions but charge for a more sophisticated and powerful level.

"You are going to see the affluent students who have access to the more advanced tools and can get much better responses, whereas students who are not as wealthy will not have access to those tools and could potentially be hindered going forward all the way through their careers," Muessig said. "That is an issue a lot of people are talking about and needs to be kept in the forefront."

Hinton speculated that the proliferation of tools, and the options that come with them, will subside, leaving only three or four big players in the game, such as Google and Amazon in their respective marketplaces.

"You know everyone uses Google and then you have these outliers," he said. "Is there going to be just one AI that dominates everything?"

Martin said he's optimistic that some free, open-source AI tools will thrive, helping to level the playing field.

"I think if I have hopes to mitigate some of the advantages of influence, I would hang them on the emergence of really good open-source AI projects," he said.

Muessig said some of the tools, depending on how they are built to "learn," show implicit bias in their depiction of people. They tend to be trained from a white, Western-centric perspective and can create racist images, for example.

"That needs to also be addressed somehow," he said.

Amid various dire predictions floating around in the larger discussion of AI, Wood advocates to keep top of mind the importance of human influence on the use of AI. She offered an example from Oregon State University of a graphic titled Bloom's Taxonomy Revisited. It suggests instructors evaluate and make changes to aligned course activities and assessments taking into account both AI tool capabilities and distinctive human skills, for which a chart cites examples.

On the line titled Understand, the chart suggests AI can be used to "describe a concept in different words, recognize a related example and translate." Human capabilities can be used to "contextualize answers within emotional, moral or ethical considerations."

"Maybe we go beyond using it responsibly," Wood said. "This is how we keep the gloom and doom from happening, if we continue to interject elements of humanity. And, also, stay relevant ourselves."

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Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at or 479-575-7239.

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