Lingnan’s big plan to advance data literacy

As he settles into his role as the new President of Lingnan University, Professor Joe Qin already has a packed agenda. At the top, though, is his firm intention to advance digital learning and integrate the use of data science tools in the curriculum, in research projects, and in various other aspects of campus life.

The reasoning is clear. Despite lingering resistance in some quarters, higher education must be ready to embrace the latest technology. Artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay, and the rapid adoption of applications like ChatGPT is inevitably going to shake up many accepted practices, not just in the world of academia, but also in the workplace and in day-to-day life.

Therefore, Qin notes, Lingnan faculty and students have to be AI literate. They should be prepared to seize the opportunities now presented and become pioneers where necessary. And, with the range of skills this gives, they will be able to open up new dimensions in liberal arts education and ensure that each graduating class is multifaceted and future-ready.

“There has been a huge acceleration in generative AI and what large language models can do,” says Qin, adding that what people call today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution is really an intellectual revolution driven by the recent tech breakthroughs. “It has become very close and is right in front of us, which makes it a hot topic for everyone in higher education.”

He notes, for instance, how quickly OpenAI’s ChatGPT signed up over a hundred million users in the first couple of months after its release last November. And, with almost equal speed, how universities which initially expressed strong reservations about this new tool, suggesting it would encourage plagiarism and mean students no longer wrote their own papers, decided to embrace it.

“Lingnan takes that approach, and we have already purchased the licence for version 3.5 of ChatGPT for the whole university,” Qin says. “We will be training faculty and students to use it and are figuring out new ways to assess assignments and support learning. One challenge is to redesign exams and testing instruments to assess each student’s real progress. You can’t entirely avoid that.”

In other respects, Qin has instructed the Faculty of Business to offer AI generated content (AIGC) in a general education course in the coming semester. In that way, students and professors can familiarise themselves with the possibilities, see how things work in practice, and hone their skills.

Other faculties are expected to follow that lead. Importantly, though, professors will have to decide and specify when GPT can and can’t be used for written assignments. And there may be a new requirement for students to submit a list of the “prompts” they gave to get content used in coursework and essays.

To back that up, they would also be asked to summarise their own thinking and conclusions. In that way, the learning process can remain clear and coherent.

“I’ve been using ChatGPT for almost six months now through Microsoft’s Bing platform, which gives a choice of different styles for composing an email or a professional letter. I find it makes me think more critically and I’ve become more vigilant in seeing it gives the content I want. My hope is that students also become more discriminating and critical.”

If redesigning courses, faculty staff will receive broad guidelines and appropriate training via a series of in-house seminars and workshops. Something similar was organised to facilitate the switch to online classes and Zoom conference calls during the pandemic, but the new initiative will operate on a larger scale.

However, sometimes individuals will still have to put in extra hours and commit to teaching themselves.

“It’s a really good example for everyone at Lingnan to show that innovation and research are part of our lives, and that the dissemination of knowledge is no longer a static thing,” Qin says. “Also, society as a whole is changing and we have to recognise that.”

Significantly, he adds, an increasing number of academic journals are indicating a willingness to accept submissions prepared with the help of AIGC. Authors may rephrase ChatGPT-generated sections or turn them around to improve the style and emphasis, but their ownership of the article is recognised if it accurately reflects their principles and points of view.

“A few months ago, I even asked ChatGPT how AIGC could help liberal arts education and the answers were interesting and very reasonable; there was nothing peculiar or surprising,” Qin says. “There is an issue about such digital tools only having one ‘value system’, not knowing the situation of the prompter and just giving answers based on different probability, which is a shortcoming. But more studies are being done on this to avoid unwanted consequences.”

Looking ahead, Qin is keen to see other aspects of data literacy incorporated in all Lingnan programmes, so that students can interpret information and relevant models in more insightful ways.

This will go hand in hand with the planned establishment of new School of Data Science in the near future. The Hong Kong government’s University Grants Committee (UGC) has already earmarked support for such developments through its Fund for Innovative Technology in Education. And, as the local economy pivots toward tech enterprises and closer integration with cities in the Greater Bay Area, it seems sure to remain a key area of focus.

“We will invest our own resources as well to buy AIGC licences,” Qin said. “It is a certainly an exciting time and another representation of knowledge, but I think of AI as a tool, an assistant, and that’s the way it should be.”