AI in College: The Advent of AI Education

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

May 7, 2024

Yes, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is everywhere these days, sometimes visible, most times not. Learning that it is ‘out there’ and in use is one thing; most people can now discern when they’re interacting with a robot, and they probably recognize that many of the appliances they use are built by robots in factories.

However, to ensure a full embrace of the burgeoning digital opportunity, those same people must learn a whole new bag of computing tricks, as do the systems with which they work. The challenge they face is that there is a woeful lack of training available that teaches anyone the basics of AI (how it works, how to set it up, how to manage it), let alone goes further to teach how to use it in commercial settings to enhance profitability and efficiency. Detecting, containing, and recovering from fraudulent AI applications is another educational avenue that is yet to be built. Developing a workforce capable of meeting these emerging demands is the next frontier in public education at all levels.

Fortunately, America’s community colleges are taking on the exercise of teaching the masses about AI’s benefits and threats. In California, these higher education schools are gearing up their resources to become the AI training centers of the future, which is, in this case, tomorrow.


AI Training – Sooner is Better than Later

Perhaps the biggest challenge involved in developing a comprehensive AI curriculum is that there are few readily accessible guidelines or parameters on how to do that. The adoption of the technology has been swift, growing much faster than the adjunct education resources needed to train users on its safe deployment or management. That education gap is one reason why it poses as much threat as it does benefit:

AI is already enhancing criminal activities (deepfakes, phishing, and malware, to name just three), and its potential for illicit use is as great as it is for positive advancements.

In February, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made AI-generated, automated ‘robocalls’ illegal because of their capacity to extort money from unsuspecting consumers.

Its unfettered use in public systems presents an immense problem. Already embedded in financial services, public safety, and infrastructure systems, AI programming poses threats to national and global power grids, logistics networks, and military strategies if utilized for nefarious purposes.

So far, only the European Union has introduced AI standards (EU AI) that are directed (like its General Data Protection Regulation – the GDPR) at ensuring the technology remains safe and trustworthy. America’s government leaders have yet to publish a formal or unified set of standards similar to those of the EU (although many government agencies are working on their own AI concerns), and no entity has yet established an educational approach to AI usage that comprehensively encompasses all of its aspects and opportunities. There are, however, schools around the country that have been working on this issue for some time and have insights to offer anyone investing in building a college-level program for AI programming.


Embracing AI Foundations

Community colleges in ArizonaTexas, and Florida have recently unveiled their AI courses for both associate and bachelor’s degrees, which they revealed at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual convention in April. Maricopa Community College was the first school to launch an associate certification in AI and machine learning (ML) in 2020, with the help of Intel Corporation. Intel adapted its European-based “AI for Youth” program to suit the needs of an American community college, and it was that foundation that gave rise to the new educational opportunity.

The AACC conference also provided a platform for schools and AI experts to collaborate on what AI training could look like and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do when developing such a program.

DO reach out to AI industry leaders, such as Intel, Microsoft (which is already working with the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD)), and Amazon (which developed its Machine Learning University—MLU—specifically for community colleges).

DO look to local companies and businesses as collaborators for training specifics. They, too, are facing the AI juggernaut and need a workforce resource to help them master the new capacities.

DON’T stay focused on budget. Yes, the needed updates and upgrades will come with added costs; however, the long game suggests that the investments will result in improved processes across all college sectors and, especially, in the local economies.

DON’T leave faculty training out of the mix. Too many schools focus on training students but miss the opportunity to upskill their in-house teachers and faculty members.

One of the most important notes developed during the AACC discussion: be aware of adult learners. Thousands of well-employed workers and professionals need AI upskilling, too, not just the typical community college youth population. Serving these groups will require modifying course times, adding online options, and flexibility in program parameters.


California’s Higher Education AI Initiatives

California’s community colleges are also focused on AI developments within their spheres of influence. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) is working with leaders across the state to understand the scope of the programming and how it already impacts each school. In addition to ensuring the software provides educational benefits (individualized learning options and enhanced research and creativity opportunities), schools are also concerned about reducing the potential for academic dishonesty, which erodes the quality of any education.

Introducing new AI-focused programs into the California Community College system requires a formal adoption of the ‘discipline’ by the organization’s Academic Senate (ASCCC). In late September 2023, that entity received a formal “Revisions to Disciplines List Form” submission to add “Artificial Intelligence” as a new discipline in higher education. The submission lays out the need for such a revision:

The submission form notes that there are only six Master’s in AI and ML degrees available in the UC (Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, and Riverside) and CSU (SanFrancisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles) systems, but no bachelor’s or associate’s degrees are offered anywhere.

There is currently an ‘undersupply’ of AI workers across the state. There is a projected gap of over 20,000 AI-focused workers annually in the Bay area alone.

Ten letters of support accompanied the submission, issued by one California State University (San Jose), five community colleges (Santa Ana, Mission, Evergreen, San Mateo, and Folsom), three industry partners (Intel Corp., Amazon Web Services, and Sustainable Living Lab), as well as personal endorsements from the North and Far North Regional Consortiums.

With demand for AI-trained workers rising in all sectors, a well-thought-out educational program to build that workforce is needed.

Despite its prevalence in so many of life’s arenas already, AI remains an unmanaged, misunderstood resource that can cause significant harm and also great good. It is critical that communities invest in building the educational resources needed to control it and optimize its use for appropriate purposes. It’s gratifying to see how America’s schools and businesses are partnering to provide their communities with that resource.


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