Anand Rao and Stefan Bauschard

As fears of undetectable AI-powered cheating sweep through college campuses, many in higher education are sounding the alarm about its disruptive potential. But while the threat of ChatGPT-assisted term papers may keep academics up at night, the actual problem facing higher education is much more significant: how can we prepare our students for the AI-driven workplace of the future? The answer is not prioritizing teaching them AI tools that may become obsolete by the time they graduate but helping them develop the metacognitive skills they need to succeed in a world where AI, synthetic biology, and quantum computing will rapidly advance.

Existing AI technology is already incredibly powerful. Frontier models have now been trained on the entire internet and proprietary datasets. They have been subsequently fine-tuned on specific subjects such as the law and medicine. Novel techniques have radically reduced hallucinations. Models can already analyze and synthesize more data than any human ever could, allowing them to make more accurate predictions that exceed what any human is capable of.

In the next two decades, there is a reasonable probability that AI will reach human intelligence levels in all domains. Whether or not it achieves that, it will be a pervasive intelligent presence in almost every business and in every interaction we have with the digital world.

Developments in the next six months, including agents and new models like GPT-5 that are likely built around them, will radically advance AI’s abilities to reason, plan, and develop persistent memory. This will have a dramatic impact on education and the workforce.

We understand what will likely happen in the short term, but how this ultimately plays out will not be predictable. We know AI could lead to job displacement, though many business leaders also see the potential for AI to create new jobs and transform existing ones. We know AI will use more and more energy, but some think it could lead to innovations in fields like fusion that could provide a nearly endless energy supply. Some theorists believe that AI could lead to breakthroughs in science and medicine that could save countless lives and even change how science is conducted.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the traditional higher education model, concentrating on memory, repetition, and long-form written expression of what is known, is insufficient as we struggle with this new and constantly changing reality. In today’s rapidly changing world, the most valuable skills will be the ability to think critically, continually identify complex problems, solve these problems, question our assumptions, and exercise our meta-cognitive faculties to adapt to new situations. Our students also need to be able to communicate effectively and collaborate one-on-one and in groups, both with each other and with interactive AI tools. These durable skills are the skills in greatest demand by employers and also are the skills employees will need to thrive in an AI World. We know that this is an area where universities can excel.

To help develop these skills, we should look to what many in an AI world would find an unexpected source of inspiration: the age-old art of academic debate. By teaching students the skills central to this time-honored tradition – critical thinking, adaptability, and the ability to construct, choose, critique, and defend complex arguments – we can help them develop the durable skills essential in an AI-driven future. These “analog” skills form the bedrock upon which students can build a flexible and future-proof skill set.

At the core of debate lies the art of logical reasoning and argumentation. Students develop critical thinking abilities that will serve them well in any field by learning to construct and analyze arguments based on sound logic and evidence. Debate also fosters confident and articulate communication as participants learn to express ideas clearly, persuasively, and concisely – an invaluable skill in both professional and personal contexts, including communicating with bots.

Moreover, debate is often a collaborative endeavor, requiring students to work together to research, strategize, and present their arguments. This team-based approach cultivates skills in active listening, compromise, and shared decision-making as students research, strategize, and present arguments—all essential in today’s interconnected workplace. The demanding nature of debate preparation also teaches students to manage their time effectively and stay organized under pressure, which will serve them well in any fast-paced, high-stakes environment.

While these traditional debate skills are undeniably important, they must be adapted to the unique challenges and opportunities of the digital age. Fortunately, students can also easily adapt these skills to the virtual context, becoming effective digital teammates and leaders. By understanding the unique dynamics of online persuasion – from attention spans to algorithm-driven content feeds – they can become master communicators in the digital arena. In an era of information overload and “fake news,” debate teaches students to be discerning consumers of online content and navigate the sea of digital information with a critical eye. By engaging in respectful, evidence-based online discussions, students can help elevate the quality of public discourse and find common ground in a divided digital landscape.

The collaborative nature of debate is a powerful catalyst for metacognitive development. This process necessitates meta-level thinking about their own and teammates’ thoughts. They learn to monitor their biases, question their assumptions, and regulate their interactions to find common ground and compromise. Moreover, the rigorous preparation involved in debate requires students to analyze their knowledge gaps, manage their time effectively, and stay organized under pressure. This self-regulated learning process is fundamentally metacognitive, as students must continuously reflect on their learning strategies, monitor their progress, and adapt their approaches as needed.

Beyond preparing students for an uncertain future, skills honed through academic debate are invaluable tools for AI researchers working to ensure rapidly advancing AI systems remain aligned with human values and do not become an existential threat. Constructing well-reasoned arguments and anticipating counterarguments is crucial for identifying potential risks and developing robust solutions to mitigate those risks before powerful AI systems can veer into misaligned or harmful trajectories. AI teams can use reasoned argumentation and debate that examines all sides of an issue to stress-test their systems and control mechanisms against hypothetical situations where an advanced AI could attempt to subvert human oversight or pursue misaligned goals. The collaborative aspects of debate are also vital for bringing together the multidisciplinary expertise needed to holistically understand and manage the ethical challenges surrounding transformative AI capabilities that could otherwise create existential risks that will come from a failure to align AI systems with human values. Strong metacognitive skills will enable researchers to reflect on their progress.

Many view the role of AI in education as simply incorporating as much AI technology as possible into teaching and learning. However, the most critical skills we need to develop in our students to thrive in an AI-driven society are metacognitive. By combining the timeless skills of traditional debate with the digital fluencies demanded by today’s world, students can build a powerful toolkit for success in an AI-driven future. As educators, our task is to help them bridge the analog and digital worlds, equipping them with the adaptability, critical thinking, and communication prowess they’ll need to thrive in a rapidly evolving landscape. Debate cultivates precisely these skills by fostering metacognitive awareness, self-regulation, and the ability to think critically about one’s thought processes. Developing these metacognitive abilities equips learners with the higher-order thinking skills necessary to effectively leverage AI tools, evaluate AI-generated information, and maintain a competitive edge in an increasingly automated workforce.


About the Authors

Dr. P. Anand Rao, Chair of the Department of Communication and Digital Studies at the University of Mary Washington

Anand Rao is a Professor of Communication and Chair of the Department of Communication and Digital Studies at the University of Mary Washington. Anand co-edited and contributed to the Chat(GPT): Navigating the Impact of Generative AI Technologies on Educational Theory and Practice and has published on AI and education, focusing on developing an argumentation-centered model of instruction. In the fall of 2023, he taught a special topic digital studies course, DGST 301N: ChatGPT and Generative AI. He serves on his university’s AI Working Group and is developing a center for AI and the humanities.

Stefan Bauschard, Course Instructor at Union College

Stefan Bauschard is an experienced educator, debate coach, and thought leader in AI and its impact on education. He is an AI Policy consultant for Designing Schools and an Introduction to AI Instructor at Union College. His expertise in AI and education is evident through his recent work. He co-edited a comprehensive 650-page volume titled Chat(GPT): Navigating the Impact of Generative AI Technologies on Educational Theory and Practice, which features 32 authors with expertise in education, technology, and law. In addition to his written work, Bauschard has been actively involved in helping K-16 schools, parents, and communities learn about and adapt to the rapid advancements in AI. He has run numerous webinars and classes teaching educators and students how to integrate AI tools into the learning process effectively.

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