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Brian Miller

100x100 Brian MillerGenerative AI and Learning Together in Classrooms

Brian Miller, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology

The availability of generative AI, currently present in particular forms like ChatGPT, Google Wordcraft, and DALL-E, means that acquiring information might be easier than ever. A person interested in a topic can go to one of these tools, enter a prompt, and receive a response.

Why should students sit in a college classroom for multiple semesters when such tools are available? If answers are so readily available, why go through all of the effort and money to attend college? Even before these new technologies, I occasionally asked Wheaton students some version of this question: “Given what you can find on YouTube, Khan Academy, social media, online texts, books, and more, what kind of learning are we after in the classroom?”

As a sociologist working at Wheaton College, both of these factors inform my answer. And thinking through this question has implications for addressing ChatGPT in the classroom and also beyond as we participate in congregations, community organizations, and our everyday interactions. Our regular presence together in the classroom is impactful as we study and experience God, our subject material, and each other.

First, as a sociologist, people learn and develop within communities. ChatGPT, like many other recent technologies, can easily contribute to isolation. All I need is a device and I can learn, interact, and play. However, this kind of activity is not the same as being with other people. We can maintain and continue relationships online – research suggests this is one of the primary selling points of social media for users – but these experiences do not engage us fully.

We are not solo learners. Much of what we know about God and the world and comes through human interaction. We observe other people, and we talk to them. We use all of our senses. We engage with our surroundings. Our physical settings help shape us. From our earliest moments in life to our latest, we interact with and develop with others.

In his 2004 book Interaction Ritual Chains, sociologist Randall Collins explores further how physical presence in regular situations can translate into what he calls “emotional energy." With a mutual object of attention and when physically present with each other, humans develop emotional energy that enhances group solidarity and the confidence of individuals. In gathering together regularly, we learn and develop as individuals and as groups.

Second, I teach at an institution where we are committed to whole-person learning “For Christ and His Kingdom.” During the school year, we meet regularly in the classroom. It is in our regular gatherings together that we can experience each other and see God at work.

Our efforts to learn at Wheaton are often aided by technology. We have devices with us almost all the time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we met online and in hybrid classrooms. It is possible to conduct our classes through Zoom. Is it the same? My own sense is that it was not the same experience. A key component was missing: being physically present with each other.

Much of what is unique about Wheaton and places like it is that we are known. We know our student’s names. Our classes are relatively small. We engage with each other in the classroom and elsewhere on campus and in the community. We may see the same student multiple times in different classes once they have selected their programs of study or pursue particular interests. We have regular rituals, including classes, where we repeatedly interact with each other and as a group.

Furthermore, we are not solo Christians. God’s plan is not just about individuals trusting him. Instead, we are called to love God and our neighbor. God cares about people and groups, calling particular people and groups in specific settings. The Bible is full of stories of the people of God trying to work out their love for God and love for others.

In my mind, this is enough reason to generate excitement for teaching sociology within the Wheaton classroom. I hope that I can, alongside students, remember and celebrate how much our presence matters for learning and growth. What we practice in the classroom regarding presence can also inform our efforts elsewhere, such as at church and in our communities. Even when generative AI provides so much information so quickly, the Wheaton classroom presents a unique opportunity to learn and grow with others.

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