Illustrations by Anna Kovecses
Artificial intelligence presents interesting challenges to content mastery, contemplation and discernment – all essential to theological education. In Trust’s Matt Hufman spoke with Ruth McGillivray, executive vice president for Northwest Seminary and College in British Columbia, Canada, and Greg Henson, president of Kairos University in Sioux Falls, S.D., about AI’s legitimacy in theological education, and how leaders can manage its shortcomings and its strengths.
Artificial intelligence keeps moving, but in higher education, there’s a sense of fear over it – about cheating, about creating content that may not be indicative of learning or legitimate to the education process. How should we frame the discussion?
McGillivray: One of the things that I’ve certainly learned is it’s coming, and we’re not going to stop it. It’s like saying we don’t want to have the internet anymore. My immediate response to it was not a sense of threat or fear; it was curiosity. How could this make our pastors and leaders more effective? How can we use this as a tool? We have to figure out how to use it to make us better as educators.
Henson: I think the other thing to note is that it’s been here for a long time. I think ChatGPT has really amped up people’s awareness of what it can do; it’s leveraging technology in different ways than AI. If our first reaction is, “This is dangerous, and everybody’s going to cheat,” then I think it may be a call for us to think about what are we actually trying to teach, what are we assessing and how do students demonstrate proficiency? Maybe this is an opportunity to think about a different way of assessing.
...thinking about authentic assessment begins to shift. How do you develop authentic assessment that recognizes that distributed nature of power?
If this is really a chance for us to re-think what we are assessing, does AI force theological educators to ask what, then, are the competencies?
McGillivray: We decided somewhere along the line that papers and exams are a proxy for competence. They’re not. I think the opportunity is to rethink what we’re asking our students to do. How do we know what we think we know, and how do we know that someone is competent? It forces us to be more creative.
Henson: ChatGPT creates a new way to help people demonstrate that competency. Writing may or may not actually be the best way to show competency, but it may or may not have always been the best way to do that. Likewise, leadership is something that people need to demonstrate proficiency in. I’ve seen some professors begin to leverage it as assignments. And what they’re assessing is not the writing; they’re actually assessing one’s ability to synthesize and to critique and to think. We’re so used to task-specific assessment. This is a really great opportunity to think about holistic assessment that happens over time rather than at a single point in time.
McGillivray: I agree with you. When you’re talking about assessing competency-based education, there are two questions: What do you need them to do, and how well can they do it? AI forces you to answer those questions differently.
How about contextualization, understanding how to apply the knowledge?
McGillivray: Our faculty is saying that ChatGPT and some of the AI will hopefully drive us back to a relational recognition that “context matters.” For people who are assessing proficiency and knowledge, it becomes relocated in that community of local context.
Henson: That’s the way hopefully, because then learning happens in community. It does de-center the classroom or the institution, which is not to say it devalues them. It just means there are aspects of a student’s life that should be brought to bear. That’s good for the church and the student.
McGillivray: If you look at the last 20 years, it’s been about creating distance to provide education. Now technology has evolved, and it’s bringing us back to learn and grow and assess in person because we can’t trust anything other than what we see. I think the answer is not to require everyone to come back to campus; that ship has sailed. I think it’s about decentralizing assessment and decentralizing development and learning.
Henson: Yes, thinking about authentic assessment begins to shift. How do you develop authentic assessment that recognizes that distributed nature of power? That’s hard for us as institutions; we’ve been in the practice of not doing that for hundreds of years. AI is a blessing because it hopefully brings that conversation back to the forefront.
How could this make our pastors and leaders more effective? How can we use this as a tool?
What’s the role of theological education in informational literacy?
McGillivray: I think it’s more important than ever. Who’s going to discern what’s real? Who’s going to discern when things are going off the rails a little bit? For me, it comes back to the Bible as principles; that’s where we have to train our new leaders to recognize their context, and to respond in a matter consistent with our faith and the scriptures.
Henson: Which is to say, knowledge is really this intersection of content and character – who you are in Christ – and what we call craft. To know something really means to have all of those. And the only way you assess that is in community with people. AI is highlighting a significant need for that.
What do you see as the potential of AI in theological education?
McGivillray: We can show leadership in how we think about technology, how we think about where our culture is going with this. We have a responsibility to help lead with curiosity and discernment.
Henson: Helping our students learn to combine their knowledge with the practice of faith is the way that we help them to think about engaging the culture around them. The technology is just part of our culture.