Artificial intelligence (AI) often features in visions of the future, but the education sector need not wait; this is an opportunity we are seizing right now.
Building on insights gleaned in our AI in tertiary education state-of-the-nation report, Jisc and a group of innovation-focused universities and colleges are launching a new National Centre for AI. The initiative has been welcomed by global technology companies including Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft
Ready to roll out
This isn’t about future-gazing; AI is already here. Universities and colleges have the technology to support 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 suggest 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.
Benefits for all
By increasing the use of AI in tertiary education, students stand to 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. In fact, our new Jisc report into current uses of AI in universities and colleges highlights positive 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.
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.
Stepping up to the plate
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. It’s a big prize, and one we don’t want to miss out on.
That’s why, at Jisc, we’re acting now, seizing the moment to accelerate our uses and understanding of AI in tertiary education by bringing together a small team of Jisc specialists to work with representatives from universities, colleges, start-ups and expert bodies.
The National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education’s first step is 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.