Artificial Intelligence could have a positive impact on teaching, learning and assessment, supporting alternatives to traditional models and systems
Artificial Intelligence (AI) often features in visions of the future, but the tertiary education sector need not wait; this is an opportunity we can seize right now.
In fact, the UK’s education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc, is currently making the case for a National Centre for AI to support university and college education.
Those wondering what this might look like may be surprised. Think supportive chatbots, not robots that are indistinguishable from humans; imagine tools that suggest educational content in response to an individual’s learning needs, not a digital ‘upload’ of information directly into your brain. While AI can deliver significant progress and reshape our approach to education, it is a technology-enhanced development from where we are today. Don’t be distracted by the promise (or threat) of science fiction.
Technology at our fingertips
The National Centre isn’t about future-gazing; AI is already here. Universities and colleges are already supporting students with chatbots and digital assistants, and there is growing interest in adaptive learning environments that respond to learning behaviours. Additionally, with broad agreement across the sector that pre-COVID exam systems and structures are ripe for review, AI is also being explored as a means of supporting assessments.
So even if we only look at the currently available technologies, there is far more innovation to come. The tools exist today to develop dialogue-based tutors that students can interact with using their mobile phone. Collaborative learning tools could facilitate group work. And recommendation engines, such as those used to recommend products ‘people like you’ have bought, can be applied to library and learning spaces. Teachers can be supported too, with AI ‘assistants’ creating summaries, quizzes and other content to bolster human-facing lessons.
Reaping the benefits
Bringing AI into tertiary education would enable vastly different ways of delivering education too. Students could benefit from more personalised experiences. Staff could pass time-consuming manual tasks over to AI, gaining more time to spend with learners. And for institutions, AI could support alternatives to traditional models, facilitating flexible, remote, and ‘bite-sized’ routes.
Early experiments are proving successful. A forthcoming Jisc report will highlight experiences at institutions including Basingstoke College of Technology and Arizona State University, finding increases in student satisfaction, a decrease in drop-out rates, and a rise in participation. We know AI can have a positive impact.
Challenges and blockers
However, compared to sectors such as retail, where the pace of change has been rapid, the education sector is slow to adopt technology at scale. Part of the problem is gaps in human skill and understanding, so we need to support staff to keep in step with new advances.
Another hurdle is that a lot of AI systems feed off data sets that need to be structured and ordered in specific ways. Most universities and colleges have a journey to go on there.
But perhaps the greatest challenge is cultural. Ethical and legal concerns around the role of AI in education are, in many ways, more complex than the technology itself. We know that badly designed AI can show bias or even discriminate against certain groups. We also know that, with data, consent is crucial, as is an understanding of how information will, can, and may be used. Our aim with the National Centre is to explore ways in which AI can augment the most important, ethical, human-led aspects of education.
Why us and why now?
A 2018 McKinsey / PwC report estimates that the use of AI in the northern European education sector could lead to an additional compound annual growth rate of 1%. In the UK, that equates to hundreds of millions of pounds over the next decade. Being the pioneer can be risky. But if we wait to learn from others’ successes and mistakes, we’re playing catch-up – and others may reap the greatest benefits instead of us. It’s a big prize to miss out on.
So rather than sit on the side-lines, we’re acting now, seizing the moment to accelerate our uses and understanding of AI in tertiary education by bringing a small team of Jisc specialists together with representatives from universities, colleges, start-ups, expert bodies, and government.
The National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education’s first step will be the relatively simple one of assessing and testing AI products in real-world education settings and sharing those experiences, enabling institutions to identify those that may improve outcomes for their cohorts.
We also hope to increase the skills, understanding and readiness of the sector, upskilling staff with on-the-ground support, and putting ethical frameworks in place. As we progress, the Centre may also identify opportunities to work with partners to develop new products.
Now is the time to start this journey, and I’m excited to take these early risks, putting ethical AI at the heart of a student-centred approach to tertiary education.
Andy McGregor is director of edtech at Jisc, the UK’s education and technology not-for-profit