UK must step up to ensure access to digital learning is ethical, innovative and inclusive

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Paul McKean

Reflections from the State of the Net conference

A group of students working on computer during a class in college

Last month I attended the State of the Net conference in Washington DC with Digital Poverty Alliance deputy chair Derek Wyatt and member Terry Carr, London Internet Exchange.

The programme included high profile speakers from the White House, US Government departments, US House of Representatives, regulators and industry experts. Unsurprisingly, artificial intelligence (AI) featured highly throughout (I stopped counting the references to AI at 50) with the second most popular topic being digital equity. On the flipside, blockchain only got one solitary mention.

Tackling digital inequality

The digital divide was highlighted by the opening speaker as something they were looking to address at the first conference 20 years ago but is still very much an issue today.

Given my personal interest in digital inclusion in the UK, I was pleased to hear the Federal Communications Commission in the US have implemented an affordable connectivity programme (ACP), ensuring low-income households can access the broadband they need for work, school, healthcare and more.

Some 23 million households are benefiting from the $3bn programme, however the discussion at the conference was not about the positive benefits, which appear significant, but the fact funding is likely to be stopped in April.

Through the Digital Poverty Alliance and the Digital Inclusion All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in the UK we have been raising the issue among UK policymakers and the tech industry, but to date, this has only seen the introduction by internet service providers of social tariffs which provide reduced cost broadband access for households on means tested benefits. Access to devices and SIM cards have also been made available via the Good Things Foundation data and device bank initiatives.

Regulating artificial intelligence

On the artificial intelligence front, the debate focused on both the short and longer term. National Suicide Helpline staff training on AI using previous conversations was used as an example of how AI is being used effectively to make positive change right here and now. In the longer term, the need for a national AI act was discussed as well as ambitions to develop curated open databases (to train large language models) to remove existing bias. The need for an industry of auditors to regulate AI, similar to existing financial audits, was also highlighted.

Overall, the US feels like it is taking the right approach to the regulation of AI, where they are focusing on regulating end users, while the EU is regulating the maths and science of AI. Deirdre Mulligan, deputy chief technology officer at the White House stated technology and data should be used for the public good. Confirming the President’s executive order will introduce standards for AI around safety and security.

Summary and reflections

My key takeaway from the conference is the need for transparency around the use of AI, which will help build trust with citizens, while continuing to address digital equity.

AI can provide new opportunities for all and should be utilised to reduce inequalities and level up opportunities. The continued adoption of AI will see the augmentation of current job roles; however, we need to view this positively, removing mundane and repetitive tasks, freeing up time and improving productivity, rather than as job displacement.

Concerns around the AI automation of jobs leading to unemployment should not be top of mind for today’s workers, instead, the focus should be on embracing tech, and becoming ‘augmented digital citizens’ – those who are digitally literate, keen to innovate and fully engaged in the AI enabled world around them.

With the positive overall acceptance of AI, it is important to also acknowledge that AI will not benefit everyone if steps are not taken to both remove and address the bias in existing datasets.

The importance of access to digital devices, connectivity and AI tools for every citizen will likely be more important than at any stage over the last few decades. Without any one of these or indeed the digital/AI literacies required to engage with AI tools the digital divide may widen.

The impact on civil society will likely become more prominent with the continued emergence of augmented digital citizens actively embracing AI and its affordances and contributing to society and the economy, while the digitally deprived are less able to do so and risk becoming economically inactive.

With a UK general election on the horizon, and as a way to improve UK productivity, we would encourage all political parties to consider using the US affordable connectivity programme as a blueprint for government action, helping to address digital inequality and providing learners with the tools they need to succeed. We also support the emergence of a balanced and protective approach to AI adoption with guardrails in place to enhance public and private, safety and security.

The evolution of AI in the workplace and education provides a wealth of opportunities for the future workforce. Cohesion between industry and education to ensure students receive the skills employers need is essential, as is regulation of new technologies to ensure ethical, innovative and inclusive use. There are exciting times ahead as we navigate this new AI enabled world together, and collaboration will be the catalyst for positive sustainable change to help us all achieve our ambitions.

About the author

Headshot of Paul McKean
Paul McKean
Director of further education, skills and training

I am director of further education (FE), skills and training at Jisc. A key function of my role is to ensure Jisc meets the needs of providers within the FE and skills sector. I also lead the training team who provide Jisc's external training to members across all sectors, including higher education, further education and skills and research and our customers.

I work closely with funders, sector agencies and providers to ensure Jisc constantly understands the latest sector priorities and challenges. The intelligence I gather helps Jisc directorates plan and respond to the ever changing needs of our FE and skills members. In addition I ensure the training delivered by the training team is of a high quality and meets the changing needs of our members and customers.