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What Higher Education Leaders Should Do About Generative AI

This is the third blog post in a series discussing the implications of Generative AI for higher education. While the series originally focused on ChatGPT, we are now broadening our scope to include Google's Bard, AI tools for search engines like Bing, and similar chat tools from Baidu and other players.

In this post, we examine the critical role senior higher education leaders must play in their institution’s response to Generative AI and future tools yet to emerge. We identify how leaders can engage their communities around these issues and how to deploy an intentional transformation process and revolutionary tools that will dramatically improve the experiences and outcomes of teams/coalitions involved in thinking in the future tense about Generative AI.

A Cascading, Viral Reaction

We have never seen such a quick and widespread public reaction to a new technology tool as we have with Generative AI. We believe this level of reaction is appropriate given its game-changing potential and its capacity to provoke vexing questions that are on everyone's mind:

  • How will the Generative AI tools affect my work, employment, and future?

  • How will student learning and engagement be impacted?

  • Will there be new rules for knowledge creation, synthesis, and plagiarism?

  • Will Generative AI make the current form of higher education obsolete?

  • Or will it help us to become more effective and to serve our learners on a sounder, more individualized basis?

  • What will we need to do to prepare our students for a world in which knowledge and skills in AI will be critical?

  • Will it help me do my job better and eliminate the drudgery?

  • Will it enable us to become significantly more cost-effective as an institution?

  • What is our institution going to do about Generative AI, and what role can I play in defining that response?

For many, just lurking below the surface is the fear that Generative AI will replace them and that they will have little to say about how it is implemented. This fear must be anticipated and dispelled.

Three Sets of Actions for Higher Education Leaders

To ensure that their institutions respond constructively and ethically to this historic disrupter, higher education leaders must immediately engage as many members of their institutional community as possible to work together to find answers to these questions. Without such engagement, Generative AI will be resisted by many, often based on bad information, and the institution’s response will be less than optimal. AI has its shortcomings and poses some threat to established higher education, as many users have pointed out. But it also has the potential to do great things in the hands of competent and informed faculty and staff. We cannot learn how great this potential is without fully engaging and applying these tools across our institutions in a conscious process of transformation.

The second and third sets of actions involve important, yet distinct, actions to deploy new generations of tools and practices: 1) deploying advanced analysis, planning, design, and implementation tools to reinvent institutional processes and facilitate transformation and 2) virtualizing the transformation experience by using collaborative tools to build online platforms that can reach and engage a broader range of stakeholders, anytime, anyplace. These three sets of actions are portrayed in the figure below.

Launch an Intentional Campaign for Leading and Navigating Transformation

To engage their institutions with Generative AI, we believe higher education leaders should consider using the transformation campaign process outlined in our book, Transforming for Turbulent Times: An Action Agenda for Higher Education Leaders. Such campaigns are, by definition, intentional, inclusive, and inspirational. The campaign includes three phases:

  • Create a Climate for Transformation. In this phase, senior leaders must establish a sense of urgency for transformation, form a broadly representative Guiding Coalition to lead the effort, and articulate a bold initial vision for the transformation. A balance of truth-telling, inspiration, and hope is required to inform the community of the opportunities and challenges of Generative AI.

  • Engage and Enable the Whole Organization. In this phase, the Guiding Coalition engages and mobilizes the institutional community by forming additional coalitions to lead the definition and execution of the strategies for achieving the vision.

  • Implement and Sustain the Transformation. In the third phase, senior leaders relentlessly lead the execution of the Regenerative AI strategies, develop the necessary organizational capacity to support them, continuously strengthen the institutional culture to accommodate the transformation, and regularly assess the impact of the strategies. Every effort must be made to institutionalize these Generative AI-enabled transformations.

This process can either address whole-institution strategies or Generative AI alone. The choice made will depend on institutional circumstances.

Deploy Advanced Tools to Facilitate Transformation

To enhance the speed, innovation, and quality in the planning and execution of an institutional transformation, a new generation of advanced planning, design, and implementation tools are available. Using these advanced tools lifts the transformation process to a higher plane of insight and performance. Our book, Transforming for Turbulent Times, presents in-depth information on the following tools, among others:

  • Assessing Your Institution’s Capacity for Transformation. A new generation of assessment tools enables institutional teams to assess current faculty and staff capacity for transformation on nine dimensions. The targets for performance leaps needed on those dimensions and how to achieve them are defined.

  • Planning from the Future Backward. To understand the transformative impact of Generative AI and other factors, teams must be able to “think in the future tense.” This four-step methodology enables a team to leap into the future to the point where transformation will occur, assess what that future will be like, and pull it back to the present. Then expeditionary strategies that are needed for the institution to succeed in that future are defined. These are adjusted continuously as conditions change.

  • Design Thinking Shapes Strategies and Expeditions. This approach involves the application of design methodologies for creative problem-solving and the crafting of expeditionary strategies to achieve a vision that will bring success to the institution in the future. Expedition Maps define the tasks, resources required, changes in behavior and culture, and timelines for the execution of expeditionary strategies.

  • Understanding and Reinventing Business Models. The transformation campaign provides insights that drive the adaptation of institutional business models. Business Model Canvas can be used to rigorously assess the marketability and effectiveness of new and existing programs and the composition of an institution’s portfolio. This tool supports strategic decision-making about an institution's future program mix and the partnerships/capacities necessary to achieve it.

Virtualize the Transformation Experience

But the greatest breakthrough in tools to support transformation campaigns has been achieved through combining emerging collaborative tools that elevate creativity and action (such as Zoom, Miro, the Advanced Tools Mentioned in the Section above, and Generative AI). During the Covid pandemic, we “virtualized” the transformation experience, embedding all of our processes and methods into suites of new tools available online. Our critical observation is that transformative outcomes and experiences have accelerated exponentially. This combination enabled institutional leadership to mobilize and coordinate coalitions and engage initiative teams at greater scope, speed, and effectiveness. Our digital tools support virtual planning sessions and provide graphic support and records of the strategy development and execution processes.

We have already used Gen AI in our suites of new tools to facilitate writing and synthesis. We are now preparing to use Generative AI to facilitate strategy crafting, analysis, and execution – and to enhance productivity and performance. The deployment of these suites of collaborative tools leads to better use of participants' time, much more meaningful participation by all involved, and greater buy-in. It enables the engagement of a broader range of partners and stakeholders. It also enables continuous, expeditionary adjustment of actions in response to changing conditions.

In a coming blog on Generative AI, we will provide a more extensive description of Virtualized, Collaborative Transformation Tools and provide information on an upcoming SCUP Webinar series on “Getting Started on Transformation,” which will showcase these tools and other key skill sets for “Transformation Architects.” Over time, we expect these practices will revolutionize transformative strategy crafting and implementation.

A Call to Action

Senior higher education leaders must begin immediately to engage their entire institutional community to find answers to the questions surrounding Generative AI and to turn it into the institution’s substantive and competitive advantage. Using the transformation process outlined in the book, Transforming for Turbulent Times: An Action Agenda for Higher Education Leaders will help leaders navigate their institutions through this disruptive technology and these times when higher education’s monopoly on the opportunity and its basic value is being questioned widely and intensely.

We close with this thought: these highly participative processes and advanced tools for transformation, as powerful and novel as they are, will not alone achieve the leverage required for successful transformation. They are implemented by activist leaders who are courageous, strong, visionary, empathic, and truthful in leading their institutional communities. Leaders who rise to the challenge of “thinking and leading in the future tense.”


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