In 2000, a Teaching Professor article entitled “Professors: Living or Dead” highlighted how dead professors (literally dead) can still teach college courses. Through online teaching, dead professors can continue showing videos, electronically send grades to the registrar, answer student emails through programmed answers, organize web groups, and update test questions provided by the publisher.
The article then listed living professor capabilities that dead professors lack, such as incorporating new information into the course exams and lectures, adding the human element in face-to-face discussions with students, and answering uncommon student emails. Those activities that dead professors could not do in 2000 might be able to be done now with artificial intelligence.
To get artificial intelligence set up, living professors can collect their lectures, essay grading, responses to student questions, photos, social media posts, blog entries, and videos of their voice inflections and nonverbal communication (gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, etc.). The professors can build chatbots, videos of their faces responding to students, and robots that reproduce all voice inflections and nonverbal communications.
Though not perfect, artificial intelligence companies already have developed these capabilities. For example, services such as DeepBrain, StoryFile, and HereAfter allow family members to communicate with their dead relatives via an interactive video call by mimicking their voice and facial expressions. Robots such as Ameca and Sophia can allow students to meet face-to-face with their dead professors.
When students talk to the dead professor, their interlocutor can not only respond to their questions but incorporate new information coming from their questions. The new information (hopefully accurate) can be incorporated into new responses.
There are potential strengths of dead professors:
- Students can take advantage of an outstanding professor who might even seem better than the living professors at the school. The dead professor can respond to student questions and grade assignments almost instantly, 24 hours a day. Responses to students can be short or long depending on the students’ and dead professor’s needs.
- Students can take advantage of the “best of” multiple professors who combine their living talents to create the most knowledgeable dead instructor in the field. The insights of the living professors could lead to further insights drawn from collective information.
- The school might save money by “hiring” the dead professor and letting the living go.
- Dead professors don’t get tired, distracted, or upset. Living professors might make more mistakes after, say, a lack of sleep, being distracted by a baseball game, or experiencing a death in the family.
- Dead professors can alleviate some grading burdens for large classes. Grading long essays for a class of 250 by the Tuesday deadline might be impossible. A dead professor can get it done in minutes or seconds. Furthermore, grading 250 essays might be as exciting as watching paint dry. The dead professor would not mind that.
- With the elimination of boring and lengthy teaching activities, living professors would be able to spend more time doing research and meeting with students.
- Dead professors might excel at identifying complex patterns in the course material, facilitating a comprehensive understanding of interconnected concepts.
- Dead professors might adapt to a student’s learning needs. By student request or by just learning how a student responds to essay and multiple choice assignments, dead professors can customize classes to meet specific needs.
- Dead professors can communicate and respond to students in multiple languages, accommodating diverse international student populations.
- Dead professors can potentially identify instances of academic dishonesty by quickly identifying similarities among students’ essay responses.
There are potential dangers associated with dead professors:
- The new information incorporated by dead professors may be inaccurate, leading to potential learning confusion.
- Artificial intelligence is not perfect. It can provide inappropriate answers to student questions. A student incorrectly types, “How do begs fly?” Artificial intelligence answers, “Bats fly using their wings, which are composed of . . .” A living professor would likely understand that the student is referring to bugs.
- Dead professors might base their lectures on old research studies that have been debunked.
- Dead professors have problems adapting to curriculum changes. The new course description eliminates chapter 12, which happens to be the dead professor’s favorite topic.
- Dead professors have problems with surprises in class. A student’s Wi-Fi connection fails during a test and needs to be restarted. The school’s learning management system is down for two days, invalidating course deadlines.
- Students might learn that a dead professor is teaching the class. A hint is that there is an obituary in the syllabus. The lack of a personal touch might alienate some students.
- Artificial intelligence will change. and as a result they send students dead links, provide students with answers more detailed than desired, or even eliminate all communication with students.
- Becoming a dead professor is not easy. Living professors would need to spend considerable time setting up their future dead-professor classes.
- Any mistakes a living professor makes in setting up their classes will live on in the dead professor’s courses. Students then learn that the sun does not shine.
- Oh, one minor issue: living professors might lose their jobs.
Living professors can still do many things that would be challenging for dead professors:
- Living professors can register their classes in the learning management system and set them up with appropriate dates and times. Their school might not be able to do such setups automatically.
- Living professors can teach face-to-face and invite guest speakers.
- Living professors can create completely new classes and make the dead professor’s expertise feel ancient. For example, the discovery of life on other planets could lead to completely new assumptions of what life is and spawn extraterrestrial biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and psychology.
- Living professors can navigate the politics of working in a school. The existence, funding, and marketing of department courses depend on faculty, administrative, and government coordination.
- Living professors do a lot more than teach. They do research, often collaboratively with others in their department or at different institutions. They bring in grant money. They also perform service work, such as organizing and attending student club meetings at a restaurant two blocks away; personally motivating and counseling students; communicating with parents, donors, and alumni; and becoming department chairs.
- The personal and real human touch from living professors is psychologically necessary to build rapport between students and faculty.
- Living professors can attend to ethical issues. They might have to decide whether to give a student a higher grade because that student could not take the final exam on time due to jury duty, a relative dying, or a severe weather event.
It remains uncertain whether the presence of more dead professors in educational institutions would be advantageous given the complexities, disadvantages, and ethical considerations involved. But the evolution of artificial intelligence technology will undoubtedly continue to shape and enhance the capabilities of dead professors in teaching or influencing students.
Bates, T., Cobo, C., Mariño, O., & Wheeler, S. (2020).Can artificial intelligence transform higher education? International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 17, Article 42. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-020-00218-x
Kaupins, G. (2000, August/September). Professors: Living or dead. The Teaching Professor, 14(7), 7.
Popenici, S., & Kerr, S. (2017). Exploring the impact of artificial intelligence on teaching and learning in higher education. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 12, Article 22. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41039-017-0062-8
Gundars (Gundy) Kaupins, PhD, is a professor at Boise State University, where he has taught human resources, compensation and benefits, and labor relations for over 37 years. He has published more than 85 journal articles on ethics, autism in the workplace, experiential training, and human resource management.