Whether you call it artificial intelligence (AI) or inteligencia artificial, generative platforms like ChatGPT are multilingual. They churn out five-paragraph essays as easily in Spanish as they do in English — and stir up pedagogical crises among anxious faculty in both North and South America.

“This is a universal concern,” said Javier Roberto Arano, a professor of cinema and advertising at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), a private university with 9,000 students in the heart of Ecuador’s capital city. “This is why we’re here in Blacksburg.”

The visit

Arano and nine other members of the USFQ faculty spent five days in Blacksburg in June for the Virginia Tech Graduate School’s Future Professoriate: Latin America Summer Program.

  • The group included teachers of physics, communications, health sciences, and mechanical and industrial engineering, all interested in discussing the implications of AI on higher education research and teaching.
  • Why this theme? “AI has been so immediately disruptive on both the positive and negative side, in terms of education and research,” said Aimée Surprenant, dean of the Graduate School. “It’s something that we're all kind of worrying about right now.”

Daily sessions

Multiple daily sessions brought faculty members and graduate students into discussion with the USFQ visitors.

  • On a Thursday morning, Quinn Warnick, assistant vice provost for technology-enhanced learning, spurred a whir of conversation in both English and Spanish with his discussion of AI in the classroom. 
  • Questions they explored included: Is this the end of higher education or just the next phase in an ongoing evolution? Does ChatGPT encourage students to outsource the work or the actual thought behind it? How can faculty members use well-crafted prompts to make AI an asset instead of a threat? 
  • “This is where we live right now,” Warnick said of his colleagues in Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies. “We think about this constantly.”
A posed picture of 10 faculty members from Universidad San Francisco de Quito standing with Liz Gray of Virginia Tech's Center for Communicating Science
Liz Gray (at left) of the Center for Communicating Science, poses with 10 faculty members from Universidad San Francisco de Quito at the end of her session in the Graduate Life Center. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Years of collaboration

Grappling across borders with the ever-evolving nature of higher education in the 21st century was the impetus for Virginia Tech’s collaboration with USFQ.

  • Former Graduate School Dean Karen DePauw first invited 16 USFQ faculty to campus in 2016. 
  • USFQ leaders were so impressed by the Graduate School’s Transformative Graduate Education Initiative that the university in Quito modeled its own faculty professional development center, Shift Academy, after it. The collaboration has continued ever since.
  • Most participants this year came to Virginia Tech after exploring educational AI at USFQ through Shift Academy’s Professoriate of the Future program. But Virginia Tech offered an infusion of global perspective on future possibilities in higher education.
  • “I thought coming to a university as good as this one and receiving external information so I can teach better classes and do better research would be great,” said Lucas Andino Dávila, who teaches philosophy courses at USFQ.

The global land-grant mission

Inviting faculty members from Ecuador to learn collectively about generative AI fits squarely into Virginia Tech’s identity as a global land-grant university that seeks to have an impact beyond borders.

  • In the Graduate School, 40 percent of students come from abroad, so cross-cultural collaborations on sticky problems like AI occur naturally. The Latin America Summer Program was just one more piece in the puzzle.
  • “Our fundamental mission really is education,” said Surprenant. “These faculty members from Ecuador and the Virginia Tech faculty members that we've been bringing in to do the workshops have continually come back to the importance of making sure that our students get the best education that they can get and are given the tools that they need to be as successful as anyone.”

'In the same boat'

No university has all the answers about generative AI as of yet. It’s a global challenge for everyone.

  • “We think that in Latin America, we are 40 or 50 years behind other countries,” said Arano. “What we realized is that we are all in the same boat and dealing with the same problems.”
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