A. Benjamin Spencer is dean of the William & Mary Law School, in Virginia.
By now it is clear that artificial intelligence is dramatically transforming our world, particularly the world of work and how professionals can augment their productivity. Because the pace of change in this area is so rapid, professional education leaders must adapt to prepare our learners for this brave new world.
For a generation that has grown up in an environment in which technology is ubiquitous, it is fitting that their professional lives will be heavily influenced — if not dominated — by AI-supported applications.
One concern, which also accompanied the advent of widespread access to online search tools and databases, is this: Will users become overly-dependent on these tools, substituting thorough research with easily obtained but ultimately incomplete results? With AI, the concern is that it can be used to replace original analysis, becoming a shortcut around thinking for oneself and developing the analytical muscles that mature into wisdom and deep insight.
Another concern is the effect of AI on professional learning and credentialing itself. If AI can generate convincing answers to assessments typically given in professional education programs or on licensure exams, our settled way of knowing whether students have achieved proficiency or mastery of a subject gets called into question.
Last, there is the fear of displacement that naturally arises when an ascendant technology demonstrates that it can do many jobs better than humans. In law, the 2000s ushered in a new era, as software that could parse documents related to litigation quickly surpassed human-eye review as the gold standard.
Suddenly, legions of young lawyers no longer needed to spend weeks reviewing millions of pages of documents that a computer program could review in minutes. What roles will contemporary AI technology render obsolete? Are professional education programs preparing students for jobs that will not exist in five or 10 years?
In the context of such uncertainty, professional education leaders must consider at least three measures that will ensure the continuing relevance and efficacy of their programs and provide the training our students need to thrive in this coming age.
First, they need to understand that the technological side of AI can no longer be simply left to the information technology experts. Regardless of the professional domain, understanding what AI is, how it works, how the underlying code and algorithms are designed, and what assumptions lie behind the computer code are important components to being able to use and consume the products of AI tools appropriately.
Professional schools thus need to adapt their curricula to incorporate AI-related topics and skills, such as data analysis, machine learning, and natural language processing. This means investing in faculty and staff who have the technical expertise and knowledge necessary to teach AI-related topics, and collaborating with industry partners to identify emerging trends and develop new approaches to teaching and learning.
Second, professional education cannot be focused exclusively on the transmission of specialized knowledge. Assessments must determine more than a student's ability to recall and apply that information.
Of course, that has been true for some time. But now more than ever, professional education must foster critical thinking, creativity and adaptability.
The skills traditionally associated with a liberal arts education remain vital to preparing people to be valued contributors and lifelong learners. As AI continues to automate routine tasks, it is likely that demand for certain types of services will decline. Professional schools must prepare students for a changing job market and provide them with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in a variety of contexts.
Rather than shying away from the use of AI, we need to educate our students on how to use and harness the power of AI to deliver value for those they will serve in their professions. Like all productivity tools that preceded it, AI at its best will enable professionals to augment their capabilities, delivering superior results in less time, freeing up time either to serve more clients or to devote more effort toward higher-level work.
Finally, professional education needs to ensure that students receive an education that emphasizes ethics and professional standards. The use of AI to serve clients raises a host of ethical issues in fields where the expectation has been that humans deliver insights and solutions, and that there is a highly skilled professional who can stand behind the integrity of that work.
Our students must have a clear view of their proper role in curating AI-assisted work product to ensure that it continues to reflect the standards expected of their profession.
Ultimately, the impact of AI on professional education is both complex and multifaceted. While it presents challenges and issues, it also presents opportunities for innovation and growth. By embracing a proactive approach to incorporating AI into professional education and working to address the ethical and professional considerations raised by the use of AI, education leaders can position students for success in an AI-dominated world.