April 2, 2024

Alabama Faculty Take SEC Road Trip for AI Insights

Lawrence Cappello and Katherine Chiou
Lawrence Cappello and Katherine Chiou

By: SEC Staff
SECU (Twitter: @TheSECU)

The classroom is changing.

From virtual learning to the widespread use of ChatGPT, university faculty are seeking ways to evolve the student learning experience.

University of Alabama researchers and assistant professors Drs. Lawrence Cappello and Katherine Chiou are working to address the post-secondary educational experience. They utilized the Southeastern Conference Faculty Travel Program to visit three SEC institutions and explore how artificial intelligence solutions could revive classroom interactions.

Inspired by the proactiveness of the virtual SEC Generative AI Forum panelists, the pair visited SEC AI Consortium members at the University of Florida, Auburn University and the University of Mississippi.

“I’m happy that we have this existing framework to work within because it gave us some great emerging projects,” said Chiou, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. “The SEC grant allowed us to be able to open up these conversations and interact with people in a way that I don’t think we would have achieved with Zoom meetings.”

The pair started in Gainesville with meetings led by Dr. David Reed, associate provost for strategic initiatives at Florida. Cappello joked that Florida’s AI resources was like “seeing into the future.” He noted recognizing Florida’s robust funding structure and industry partners across all disciplines was eye-opening.

“Everybody shared information and was not guarded about anything,” said Cappello, an assistant professor in the Department of History. “We came back learning not just about AI tools but saw what the connective tissue looks like to build these structures and tools, what it looks like top-down and bottom-up in a way that served as an incredibly useful crash course.”

The duo continued the collaborative meetings with Dr. Asim Ali, executive director of Auburn’s Biggio Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, and Marc Watkins, lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at Ole Miss. With more open discussions, the groups covered topics like student success and faculty investment in generative AI.

“This has probably been the most useful grant funding,” Cappello said. “I say that as far as spending the money versus getting the necessary knowledge to elevate your area. It felt like it was five years’ worth of professional development in a semester. These amazing colleagues imparted all the shortcuts that they clearly had to learn the hard way when they were building things out.”

Their experiences fueled a larger vision. Inspired by the collaborative spirit of the SEC AI Consortium, they helped establish CIPHER AI – the Coalition for Innovating Privacy, Humanities, Ethics, and Rights in AI.

Based in the University of Alabama’s College of Arts and Sciences, CIPHER AI is focusing on the human side of digital integration. Their goal is not just to enhance teaching but to cultivate ethical reasoning capacities and privacy awareness.

“There needs to be real intelligent conversations about this beyond just checking a box,” Cappello said. “We want to establish research hubs in areas that get into very messy problems, things where there’s no clear ethical solution. We want to throw these problems at students and faculty and ask how they would work through this.

“It’s about developing instincts so that students and faculty can navigate pressing privacy, ethical, and rights-based problems knowing that very rarely is there going to be a pure right and a pure wrong.”

As CIPHER AI is in its early stages of implementation and resource development, Cappello and Chiou plan to pay it forward from their SEC Faculty Travel Program experience by collaborating with their local community, historically Black colleges and universities, and other SEC institutions.

“All this was like serendipity. We never planned for it, but each step led to another opportunity,” Chiou said. “I hope with our skill sets we will be able to contribute to this conversation by working with everyone, including our SEC partners, because you can tell for everyone involved with the SEC AI Consortium that their work is a passion project.”