Wednesday 17 April 2024

AI for the Overwhelmed: a webinar


Report on the BLE webinar held on 16th April 2024

image of Metal Mickey, the robot from a TV show
This session served as a supportive introduction to GenAI and what it can do in the context of higher education. It was purposefully not recorded in order to offer attendees a safe space to find out what GenAI is, to share experiences and to feely ask the questions they were too afraid to ask for fear of looking ignorant. Over 80 people registered for the webinar, which in itself spoke volumes. Attendees represented a broad range of staffing areas including teaching, research, course administration, HR, library, IT and digital education. So many colleagues wanting to gain a better understanding - and to discover what others know/are doing. We are, after all, human and not machine. So many of us are feeling overwhelmed by AI in different ways, from what it is to how to help others.

screenshot from CoPilot
CoPilot's response to the query 'What does GenAI mean?'

I opened the session with a personal explanation of why I had organised the event. And here it is again in a nutshell: Upon returning from parental leave at the start of February 2024, the emergence (or crash-landing) of GenAI was being discussed everywhere – e.g. the impact it was having on learning, teaching and particularly assessment. There was a constant stream of events being organised, courses to take, articles to read, policies to develop - I felt I was very far behind everyone else and I panicked that I had too much catching up to do. Being out of my depth in the world of technology was something I hadn’t experienced before – I was drowning in a sea of information and discourse, and I didn’t know where to start. I was overwhelmed. But the more I spoke to learned colleagues, the more I realised that everyone was feeling the same. I hadn’t really fallen behind – the development and pace of AI is so fast-changing, it is hard to keep up - and many people still haven’t had the chance fully engaged with it at all. I wanted to connect with others feeling the same as me and to start to investigate how the BLE could support them (us).

image of robot Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movie

Deborah Grange, Head of Student Learning Development at Birkbeck, has been running a regular workshop specifically for students since the start of this calendar year. Interestingly, staff have also been attending. I knew she was the person I needed to provide a gentle introduction to GenAI. Deborah ran through the most commonly-used Gen
AI tools (or Large Language Models, LLMs) that are available. She explained in simple terms how they work and why we need to use cautionary behaviour when using them. AI outputs are only as good as the data that is fed in; the tool doesn't 'think' and it can offer incorrect yet convincing-looking responses ('hallucinations'). Deborah demonstrated Microsoft's CoPilot (based on GPT-4, the same 'engine' that Chat GPT uses) and Google's Gemini by entering a query and comparing the results. 

From this 'basics of AI' presentation, I then invited Sultan Wadud, Learning Technology Manager at SOAS, to share how he uses AI in his every day work. Wadud's talk presented several advanced examples of AI usage from generating images to convey concepts for presentation slides to helping him make a start on writing policies and emails.

Throughout the session, attendees contributed to this Padlet board to share their motivations for attending the session, examples of their use of GenAI tools and then what the BLE can do next. The BLE Team will be using both this and the chat contributions made in the session to inform our planning. Suggestions for follow-ups so far include regular online 'show and tells with AI' to share what people are doing and a hands-on workshop to try out tools for those who are not experienced. Please contact us here if you would like to make a suggestion.

In conclusion, like the web browser, which changed the face of education forever, GenAI is already doing the same - and it is here to stay (well, evolve), We can’t avoid it – we have to embrace it, or at least acknowledge and work with it.

If you work for one of the BLE partner institutions*, join our mailing list here to be the first to find out about all our events and activities:

* Birkbeck, LSHTM, RVC, SOAS, UCL and the University of London

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