Like many others I’ve been playing with ChatGPT, the beta version of a new AI tool. It’s a fun process; some of the material generated creates a workable first draft that usefully speeds up the creative writing process. In a recent meeting it created a 200 word marketing pitch in 15 seconds that committee members would have been happy to adopt on the spot. Meanwhile its response to my request for a 10 minute sermon on John 1 for Christmas Day was an amusing refusal to do so on the basis that only humans could possess religious faith followed by a list of 5 suggested dot points to include.
The world of higher education has focussed intently over the summer on the enormous impact various forms of artificial intelligence will have on learning, teaching and research. Most of this attention has been negative. Will we see an increase in plagiarism – cheating – as students ask AI to write their essays for them? Should higher education return to the older system of unseen invigiliated written examinations, or to a wider variety of in-class presentations, that might prevent cheating?
At the TEQSA Conference in November, one witty academic pointed out that AI can do more than write essays; it can also grade them and write comments. The pessimists among us imagine a future University where students and staff merely sit on the sidelines while the learning and teaching is done by robots. Well, be assured the University’s Academic Board is considering these issues and how we may need to adjust our academic integrity policy, academic skills training and assessment practices.
But what about the potential for tools such as ChatGPT to transform the way we learn, teach, think and create?
Imagine setting assessments that require students to use AI to generate essays, then require students to submit a critical evaluation of the results. (Imagine too that the grading of those evaluations is also done by AI, with the lecturer providing a critical commentary to the student on the result.)
Conversely, what would it look like to teach an onsite unit that prohibited the use of any technology, other than that required to enable participation by students who live with a disability – how could we maximise our understanding of what it means to learn as embodied human actors, focussing entirely on bringing our gifts and abilities into a community of learning? We already have some parallels in our curriculum, such as on-country learning experiences curated by First Nations people, or programs such as CPE and STFE.
Such approaches could generate wisdom to share with the wider university world through the specific contribution theological knowledge and method can make, to our shared understanding about the purpose, meaning and potential of what it means to be human. For this is essential to the future of education in a digital age: to understand, and to maximise the specific gift of being human.
But first we need to acknowledge that AI has a long way to go … I commanded ChatGPT to “write me 100 words about AI and theological education for University staff”. Here’s what it did:
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to revolutionise theological education by offering new tools and approaches for teaching and research. AI can assist faculty in analysing large amounts of theological data, identifying patterns, and generating insights. It can also help with language translation, making theological texts accessible to a broader audience. Furthermore, AI can facilitate personalised learning by tailoring content to individual student needs and preferences. However, it is important to approach AI with caution and consider its ethical implications, especially in theological contexts. University staff should engage in ongoing dialogue and collaboration with experts in AI ethics to ensure that these technologies are deployed responsibly and with intentionality in theological education.
Well, that probably gets a pass not a fail. But are you bored? So am I! For a start there’s nothing specifically theological in here … and there is no sign of that crucial human attribute, free will.
AI will continue to develop, but instead of being afraid of it, let’s ensure that our students and graduates have the tools they need for life in the digital age. To that end, I for one am grateful to Australian theologians such as Professor Glen O’Brien or Dr Victoria Lorrimar who have already been leading conversations about theology, technology and futurism.
As we make judicious use of ChatGPT and other new technologies, I encourage you to reconnect our approach to learning and teaching with the implications of one the most extraordinary Christian beliefs, that human beings are made in the image of the God who created us.
Professor Peter Sherlock is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity. He is a cultural and religious historian of Renaissance and Reformation Europe and an expert on governance and leadership in educational and church settings. A graduate of the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford, his academic career has included an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship in History at the University of Melbourne and four years as Dean of the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.