Worth of an academic in the digital era

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It’s concerning if our nation’s future is in the hands of individuals who couldn’t thrive in the industry. — ETX Studio image

ONCE, I was asked why academics seemed so busy, as if their only task is to teach. I was also told that if one cannot survive in the corporate work environment, the teaching profession is always a good option.

Surprisingly, even a prominent academic leader in a private institution shared this perception. Although some may argue that academic expectations differ between colleges and universities, it is crucial to grasp the true purpose of academics: nurturing the next generation.

This purpose holds greater significance than the setting in which they work. If academia is considered a fallback for those who struggle in the corporate world, should we entrust them with teaching and nurturing the next generation?

It’s concerning if our nation’s future is in the hands of individuals who couldn’t thrive in the industry. As a society, how can we allow this disparity? The equation simply doesn’t make sense.

Academics in higher education have a diverse range of responsibilities beyond teaching. Often misunderstood, they are not just experts in their fields, but also engage in research, scholarly publishing, and advancing knowledge.

Additionally, they must deliver excellent teaching, mentor students, address parental concerns, assume leadership roles, engage in marketing efforts, and generate income through grants, training, and consultancy. Their job scope extends far beyond the classroom.

Academics are crucial in higher education, driving knowledge creation, critical thinking, and student mentoring. Yet, the burden of extensive publishing, securing funding, and heavy workloads can lead to burnout and compromise education quality.

In the digital age, could artificial intelligence (AI) be the answer to address the resilience issue among academics? Will we witness a fully automated university akin to the Kuching Park Hotel (a smart digital hotel) in the future?

AI’s recent advancements have transformed higher education by supporting learning processes and streamlining administrative tasks. Personalised learning experiences, driven by AI analysing individual student data, enhance engagement, motivation, and outcomes.

However, the potential for AI to replace academics is concerning. While AI can automate aspects like personalised feedback and identifying knowledge gaps, the complete replacement of human academics remains debatable. Perhaps, job losses and a potential decline in education quality can be concerns if AI surpasses human involvement.

AI systems rely on the quality of their data, meaning biases and gaps in the data can be replicated. Academics, on the other hand, employ critical thinking, creativity, and ethical considerations to evaluate and challenge information, fostering a comprehensive understanding for students.

Additionally, the use of AI in higher education raises concerns about academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Monitoring and controlling classroom content through AI systems may limit diverse perspectives, resulting in a homogenisation of education restricted by algorithmic influences.

Once, I asked a group of Computing students in a private university, who had just shared with me their work-in-progress Virtual Reality system, if they would enrol into a university that is fully automated by technologies.

While they pondered for a while before they answered, eventually they expressed that human academics are still needed though they could not pinpoint what exactly are their roles in such environment.

Well, academics are more than just content experts; they are facilitators of learning, mentors with a conscience, and role models with a heart to care, forming the unique human qualities they can bring to the classroom. They provide a human touch that is essential for creating a supportive and nurturing learning environment. They can connect with students on a personal level, understand their individual needs, and motivate them to achieve their potential through authentic pastoral care.

AI may be able to provide information, but it cannot replace the human connection that is critical to effective teaching and learning, bringing up the real meaning of quality education.

Academics should embrace technology rather than fear it, leveraging AI to enhance administrative tasks’ efficiency and effectiveness. AI-powered chatbots can address student queries, enabling academics to prioritise teaching and research. Automating routine tasks like grading liberates academics to focus on crucial work.

Moreover, AI-powered systems facilitate student collaboration through virtual study groups, utilising chatbots and virtual assistants. This fosters global collaboration on projects and assignments, benefiting remote or physically absent students.

With AI, the academics can develop personalised education, improving students’ learning experience. AI systems analyse data, offer feedback, and adapt learning paths to individual needs, promoting engagement and better outcomes. Swift, actionable feedback is advantageous, particularly in subjects like mathematics or language learning.

AI aids error identification and provides recommendations, fostering rapid skill development and superior learning results. Most advanced academics can use virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or extended reality (XR) to create immersive simulations, enhancing interaction and memorability in engineering and medical fields.

However, academics must exercise careful management and oversight when integrating with AI. They should be mindful of AI’s limitations and biases, challenging assumptions and evaluating outcomes.

Effective integration can be achieved through collaboration with AI developers, aligning systems with course objectives and pedagogical principles. Providing students with training and support in using AI-powered systems is vital. Moreover, academics can share insights and best practices with colleagues to enhance AI integration into the curriculum.

In all, the academics contributions extend beyond student learning outcomes to include new knowledge development and commercial benefits. Their role involves imparting wisdom, nurturing innovative and ethical future leaders. Recognising and supporting their holistic role is crucial for an enriching educational environment.

Embracing technology, rather than fearing it, is essential for academic relevance. Technology should enhance – not replace – academic work. Their worth lies in integrating the right technology, ensuring meaningful existence and nurturing the next generation digitally and humanistically.

Prof Brian Wong
Dean, Faculty of Business, Design and Arts 
Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak