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October 24, 2023

Reimagining the Professor/Student Power Dynamic Using AI

For centuries, most of higher education has relied upon a relatively “authoritarian” teaching model: deeply educated professors would share their academic knowledge and test students on their ability to echo that knowledge in classic forms that fit the structures accumulated by academia. With the exception of the creative arts, it was more the exception than the rule to reinforce experimentation, creativity and innovation in the margins of these classic forms and structures. However, this approach is starting to change as academia embraces more innovative approaches not just in the application of academic knowledge, but even in the structure of knowledge. The students that will benefit the most in the new model will be taught by professors that actualize the role of experts wrapped in the robes of student coaching, collaboration, and creative inspiration. Let’s look at how AI will accelerate this change. 

AI enables a tectonic shift in the information flow model and traditional teacher/student educational hierarchy familiar to so many. Using tools to simplify processes and encourage diverse insights is not only smart, it’s imperative to lead to new ideas and breakthrough approaches to modern day challenges. I enjoyed exploring this concept with Saul Jimenez-Sandoval, President of California State University, Fresno in the transformed podcast, episode 58 

The Way It’s Always Been 

In the traditional model, information flowed from the top down, with the professor at the peak of the authority and power pyramid. Historically the professor was perceived as the source of knowledge, at least on the course material, and the primary expert on the topic.  

The early paradigm led to professors imparting knowledge, delivered through their filters, and the students learning it, memorizing it and repeating it back. In addition to this reflecting back, students would ideally apply the knowledge in some way to prove they understand the concepts presented by the professor. Students perform their own research, re-finding and re-hashing what others have already discovered, spending hours and days exploring primary sources. This work emphasized their research skills not necessarily their understanding of the material. In the past, this was all too often the primary method of teaching a subject. Fortunately, times and tools have changed.  

The Way It Can Be 

Now consider an AI-enabled model: The professor is now in a collaborative mode, more like a coach, nurturing and supporting students on their learning journey.  

The professor starts the conversation and sets parameters for the topic of the course. Students then use AI and other tools to accelerate their discovery of knowledge about the topic that is already out there, and then apply their own perspective to that body of knowledge to refine and present their insights. Dr. Jimenez-Sandoval cites the ability of AI to provide ubiquitous availability of knowledge, thereby letting the professor as coach focus instead on guiding students to forge their own ideas, rather than grading their research skills to find others’ insights.  

For this new dynamic to work, professors need to have healthy egos, in the most positive sense. That is, they need to be emotionally and mentally strong enough to be okay with NOT being the main source of information and knowledge for students. They need to be okay with students bringing different perspectives that they’ve found through AI or other sources. They need to be okay with not being seen as the only authority or the smartest person in the room. I contend that not all professors will be able to comfortably make that adjustment and give up their traditional power in the classroom. 

It’s a nuanced role for instructors and for those who have the right mindset, as it gives them a chance to help students mature and develop holistically. An article in the Times Higher Education, Calling all authoritarians: how to shift the power dynamic in your classes, offers actionable advice to both professors and students, including how to build trust, treat each student as an individual, and give students autonomy. The empowerment framework not only increases student engagement but improves the entire learning experience.  

Dr. Jimenez-Sandoval uses an example of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?…) to explain how the new model offers students alternatives to learn. With AI searches that consolidate previous learnings about the sonnet, such as why a summer’s day in England can be so elusive and appreciated, and by allowing students to share their insights through something other than a written essay, such as a video or a series of social media posts, the new model encourages diversity of thought and action. In this case, the professor specifies the topic to study and gives general requirements for a deliverable. 

When professors are willing and able to collaborate and co-create with students and allow the use of tools that remove repetitive and routine tasks, the entire process can be more fulfilling and enjoyable for everyone in the learning environment. 

Do you agree that AI can bring a new level of engagement to the professor/student dynamic? If not, help me understand your perspective. I encourage you to contact me at so we can continue the conversation.  




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