An AI platform aims to promote critical thinking, build a sense of community in class, and help improve student success

A community college taps AI to inspire curiosity in online discussions

An AI platform aims to promote critical thinking, build a sense of community in class, and help improve student success

A Texas community college has launched a new initiative that will enable faculty to cultivate more enriching, engaging class discussions utilizing artificial intelligence (AI).

In partnership with the inquiry-based discussion platform Packback, Lone Star College-University Park will expand faculty and student access to a platform intended to promote critical thinking, build a sense of community in class, and help improve student success.

“The power of a good class discussion is that it empowers students to engage with the curriculum beyond what’s in their textbooks—and help them to see that they’re not alone in the questions they have or the observations they make,” said Dr. Kathy Cecil-Sanchez, vice president of instruction at LSC-University Park. “That’s the kind of critical thinking that Packback’s platform helps to inspire, while also allowing faculty to foster deeper and more substantive engagement with their students.”

Backed by entrepreneur Mark Cuban, Packback’s unique platform assigns a “curiosity score” to students’ discussion posts based on a range of factors, including the open-endedness of questions and the way that students reference sources. The tool also provides feedback on grammar, spelling, and offers students guidance on academic research processes like citing sources and paraphrasing. All these elements of the Packback platform are designed to spark students’ intrinsic motivation, as well as to help instructors focus on providing more substantive guidance and support to students, rather than spending time on more repetitive tasks like correcting grammar.

“In my classes, Packback has been a platform that provides equity of access to the material while also pushing students to ensure that their analysis is based on facts,” said Cassandra Khatri, LSC-University Park professor of political science. “Packback requires students cite the work they provide in their responses, which gets at the larger problem in political science of the gray area between analysis and takes. I really enjoy seeing my students practicing critical thinking skills as they deal with the tough issues of the day.”

“I appreciate Packback’s AI guidance on the writing and research, so I can focus more on the heart of the discussion topics that arise, added Jennifer Ross, LSC-University Park professor of political science. “Through Packback discussions I have seen students go from being passive learners who just accept what they read and hear, to actively taking an interest in current events and thinking about them critically.”

The partnership comes in the wake of a recent research finding that inquiry-based discussion tools can spark deeper engagement and also boost academic performance. A study conducted by Packback in 2019-2020 with 10 higher education institutions, including LSC-University Park, found that students in classes that use Packback received more A, B, or C grades and fewer D, F and W grades than the control group. In the same study, students cited sources approximately 2.5 times as often in the treatment group versus the control group.

“Our work with colleges around the country is rooted in the belief that better approaches to discussion can help students build the skills that help them succeed both in and out of the classroom,” said Kasey Gandham, co-founder of Packback. “As an institution that shares that vision, LSC-University Park has been an invaluable partner over the past few years, and we look forward to continuing to learn from its creative and student-centered approach in the years to come.”

Packback’s proprietary AI and machine learning technology provides inquiry-based online discussion to over 3,500 instructors and over 900,000 students, who have posted 22 million questions and responses to date.

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Laura Ascione