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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Prompting Progress: Advancing Your AI Skills

Generative artificial intelligence has the potential to greatly enhance your creativity, efficiency, productivity and relevance in nearly every role in higher education.

The pathway to success in using generative AI is to become proficient in composing the initial prompts and follow-ups that fully, precisely and unambiguously communicate your needs to the tool. It is a matter of communication skill, not of programming prowess. Fortunately, to command the power of artificial intelligence today, we don’t need programming skills—we need to learn how to best express our desired outcomes to the application.

There is a wide variety of generative AI apps available from major tech companies as well as smaller start-ups and even individuals. They have done the hard work of creating the tool and training it to respond to our commands. There’s even a site named “There’s an AI for That,” which, at the time of this writing, lists 11,670 AIs for 16,604 tasks and 4,847 jobs.

Although the list changes with new releases and updates, I have my current favorites. These apps are powerful, feature-loaded and among the most reliable online. Of course, ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI and one of the first in the field, is among the best and most innovative, often adding features that are later replicated by competitors. I use the paid version that allows me to create my own GPT and always provides access to the newest and largest large language models, currently GPT-4 Turbo. For readers with Plus subscriptions ($20/month), my GPT is Ray’s EDU AI Advisor. A recent beta feature allows Plus subscribers to enter the name of another GPT to enable it to join the conversation, so you can have a mix of GPTs engaged in your conversation.

Also among my favorites has been Google Bard, that, as of Feb. 7, was renamed Gemini. The new version is significantly improved—Gemini is powered by Gemini Pro, a large language model developed by Google AI. It was first announced in May 2023 and officially integrated into Bard in December 2023. Among the features I really like are that, in most cases, it automatically provides three versions of responses and has recently added image generation to its capabilities.

Another favorite that is gaining recognition is Perplexity, which provides source-citation links for all responses. This is particularly useful for us in higher ed. Also available in many cases are the results of a search for relevant images.

Other favorites include Claude2You and Pi, which is particularly useful for social-emotional support as well as the standard generative AI services. In all cases, the essential skill for success is to be able to craft prompts that get the most out of these highly capable tools.

We have previously discussed in this space how important it is to start using generative AI as soon as possible in order to better understand the changes it will bring to higher education in the months ahead. You will see that it has powerful abilities to dig through current data to give you trends and fact-filled responses to improve your classes, curricula, marketing, departmental efficiency and vision of the future. The potential is stunning. You have only to write your requests in a form that gives the context of your situation as well as the kind of format and content you are seeking in the response. In order to accomplish that, you must refine and practice your skills at developing prompts that will draw out the best responses from the application you are using.

If you get started now by using generative AI to enhance five to 10 daily searches for information, by spring break you will be confident and skilled enough to teach others. This can be started by using a search extension. For example, when I conduct a Google search, a Chrome extension—ChatGPT for Google—displays the results on a split screen with Google search results displayed on the left and a choice of generative AI provider responses on the right side. However, the common cryptic Google search terms do not bring out the best of results from generative AI. You will need to rerun or craft follow-up prompts to get a robust response.

In brief, you should approach writing your prompts as if you were speaking to an intelligent colleague at work. You should give full context to your request, such as, “I am a professor at the University of Illinois Springfield teaching an introductory class on communication technology.” This explains the audience for the output. You would continue with details of what you are seeking, such as an entire syllabus, a module, exercises, engagement opportunities, assessment rubrics, etc. You might then ask for the results in narrative, table or another format.

There are many guides, even entire short courses, on how to write the best prompts. They continue to be revised and updated to include the new features and options that are available among the different applications. One of the most recent lists of suggestions comes from the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence, the world’s first graduate-level artificial intelligence university dedicated to research.

Authors Sondos Mahmoud Bsharat, Aidar Myrzakhan and Zhiqiang Shen last month published a research paper, “Supercharge Your ChatGPT Prompts” in the open-access preprint arXiv publication. The results have been summarized in 26 succinct slides with prompt composition recommendations. These can guide you as you develop your prompts, helping to ensure you craft them in the best way to elicit the responses you seek. As you refine your prompt writing, do not hesitate to follow up with additional prompts to uncover the information you need.

Even as you read this, know that colleagues and competitors alike are using the awesome power of generative AI to assist in creating new works; discovering more efficient modes and methods of advancing themselves, their students and their colleagues; and enhancing the overall effectiveness of their departments, colleges and universities. Don’t be left behind!


This article was originally posted in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog.

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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