Without intervention, AI could widen the digital divide for students

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Paul McKean

Access to education is a basic human right for all.

Top down view of students working at tables

The United Nations describes education as “the building block for every society” - but for those experiencing digital inequity, there is a very real risk of falling behind as more learning moves online.

This end digital poverty day, Jisc is proud to align with the Digital Poverty Alliance in their ambition to raise awareness of digital poverty in the UK.

One issue that has not been properly addressed is how poor access to artificial intelligence (AI) in education could widen the attainment gap. With its potential to enhance the student experience, barriers to accessing AI tools could increase the digital divide for those living with disadvantage.

As one of the founding members of the data poverty APPG, a cross-party parliamentary group with a mission to eradicate data poverty across the UK, Jisc is committed to levelling the playing field, and is taking steps to help support this.

Since the introduction of ChatGPT3 in November 2022, the use of generative AI has grown exponentially, and there has been much discussion around the implications for education. AI has the potential to help educators better understand and meet the needs of their learners and can provide students with a new set of skills, but this comes at a cost.

By facilitating discussion forums with learners, Jisc has produced a report on student perceptions of generative AI (pdf), which found one of the main concerns was fair access and usage, particularly after charges started to be added to tools such as ChatGPT4.

Initial estimates by the experts at Jisc’s national centre for AI in tertiary education found that if a student were to subscribe to a full suite of popular generative AI tools and education plug-ins, it could cost them around £1,000 a year, pushing generative AI out of reach for many.

Some AI tools are currently free to use but, without adequate connectivity, some students may still struggle to keep up with their peers and access the education they deserve.

In the 2022/23 digital experience insights survey for students, more than half of all respondents across higher education (HE) and further education (FE) said that poor wifi was a barrier to education, with more than a third also citing concerns around mobile data costs.

To coincide with end digital poverty day, the data poverty APPG launched their latest annual state of the nation report, which includes our recommendation that free internet connectivity in public spaces be increased for students, and that websites for essential services, including access to educational services, should be zero-rated.

As part of our continuing work with education providers to widen access to the internet, we are currently piloting a range of portable devices that use cellular connectivity to deliver eduroam to students and staff in public spaces. We are also running trials of affordable AI tools for educators in colleges to create a variety of essential and engaging materials for their students.

More assessment is needed before AI becomes part of everyday use in education but, at the very least, all learners must be given access to suitable tools to ensure that disadvantaged individuals and communities are not excluded from education.

About the author

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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.