This Michigan University Is a Leader in AI Education. It Just Enrolled Its First Virtual Students

Ferris State University is one of a few universities nationwide offering an undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence. Now, it's enrolling virtual students powered by AI to learn alongside humans.
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Published on February 13, 2024
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  • Ferris State University's undergraduate AI program works closely with national agencies, Michigan companies, and Amazon Web Services.
  • Students studying AI learn about biometrics, AI ethics, machine learning, neural networks, and human-computer interactions in the undergraduate program.
  • Now, virtual first-year students Ann and Fry will participate in hybrid classes, listen to lectures, interact with students, and eventually choose majors.

Ferris State University (FSU) in Big Rapids, Michigan, made waves last month when it announced it would be the first in the country to use artificial intelligence (AI) to create virtual students to enroll in classes and participate in lessons and assignments.

The goal is to leverage AI to see what educational applications FSU can develop, refine, or eliminate to become more efficient and effective, Dave Murray, associate vice president for marketing and communications at FSU, told BestColleges.

"These virtual students, and the work we are doing around them, are another example of Ferris State showing leadership in technological fields," Provost Bobby Fleischman said in a press release. "Our students have opportunities to learn from faculty members who are experts in their fields, gaining skills with real-world applications that will lead to rewarding careers."

The public institution on the banks of the Muskegon River with an undergraduate enrollment of about 10,000 is a national leader in AI education.

It is the only AI bachelor of science program in Michigan, and FSU is one of a handful of institutions nationwide currently offering the degree, according to the school's website. The AI program works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and Amazon Web Services.

FSU's incoming virtual students are just the latest AI education innovations the university has launched in the last few years.

"Ferris State is a leader in artificial intelligence education and can leverage its expertise to use the technology we teach to strengthen our ability to lead," Molly Cooper, a Ferris State professor and scholar of information security, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence, said in a press release.

"The more we use artificial intelligence, we can see what it is capable of and how we can use it to do things more efficiently and effectively."

Virtual Students Ann and Fry Go to College

Ann and Fry are two virtual first-year students who will take hybrid classes with real students, complete assignments, listen to lectures, and eventually choose their majors.

"This project will help us learn more about applications for this rapidly evolving technology," Murray told BestColleges. "AI will increasingly be a part of our daily lives in some way. We are teaching students how to use it and develop it. But we are also learning how a university can best harness the technology to support students."

The FSU Information Security and Intelligence Department is directing the virtual student project. Faculty created backstories for Ann and Fry based on real student experiences that will assist them in making decisions, including their majors.

"Many students are involved in the project and are excited to see how it will work and what they can learn about artificial intelligence technology," Murray said.

The goal is to have Ann and Fry participate in classroom discussions and interact with classmates.

Here's What Students Study to Earn a Bachelor's in AI

FSU's bachelor of science in artificial intelligence program offers 10 courses, including:

Biometrics: The operation, design, and utilization of biometrics, including facial and voice identification, as well as the legal, security, social, and ethical implications.

AI Concepts and Problem-Solving: Creating AI systems using neural networks, natural language, machine learning, and deep learning for decision-making and problem-solving.

Natural Language Processing: A course where students use natural language processing to enable devices to understand and process human language.

Machine Learning: Students use a machine learning program to design, develop, train, and tune their models and use them in practical use cases.

AI Architecture and Design: Students explore human-computer interactions and how they relate to AI system design and architecture.

Deep Learning: The next level course after machine learning.

FSU also offers a BS and minor in information security and intelligence, as well as certificates in cybersecurity.

Colleges Across the Country Innovate With AI

Since ChatGPT's launch in November 2022, students, faculty, and administrators have wondered if AI's improving ability to write essays, combat plagiarism, and even pass college-level exams will be good or bad for higher education.

Some 15 months later, Ferris University's virtual students are just the latest application of AI at American colleges.

The University of Pennsylvania in February announced it will offer a bachelor of science in engineering in AI starting in fall 2024. The Raj and Neera Singh Program in Artificial Intelligence will focus on preparing students to develop responsible AI tools that will benefit society.

In January, OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, and Arizona State University announced a partnership that will bring ChatGPT Enterprise to ASU's campus. Faculty and staff will use ChatGPT Enterprise, which allows companies to build custom versions of ChatGPT, to enhance learning in three key areas: student success, new research paths, and organizational processes.

Harvard University, meanwhile, is integrating AI into a popular class for computer science students. Machine learning will give students feedback, help fine-tune their code, and even answer frequently asked questions, according to the Harvard professor who heads up Computer Science 50: Introduction to Computer Science (CS50).