From education to employment

Utilising AI to improve efficiency and efficacy in higher education

Tom Moule, Product Lead, The National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education and Jisc

AI is transforming our world, and the education sector is no exception. It can and will improve teaching and learning, as long as it’s used both purposefully and responsibly.

In 2019, $3.67bn was invested in AI EdTech start-ups, up from $2.89bn in 2018. The benefits this technology holds are becoming more and more obvious and, as it continues to mature, we can expect it to enable higher education institutions to do more than ever before.

While the shift to online and remote working over the last two years has served a purpose it hasn’t worked for everyone. This has highlighted the importance of direct and personal support from human educators to students, and we see AI as playing a vital role here. It can be matched to the needs of educators and learners, making workloads more manageable which, in turn, can result in more support for students.

So, what roles can we expect AI to play, and how will it improve efficiency and efficacy in higher education?

Gaining more time and making it count

It’s no secret that teachers, operational staff, and researchers are often burdened by heavy workloads, and we see AI as a way to help relieve that. It’s not about cutting corners – instead, it’s about making objectives more achievable.

AI has already shown its advantage in reducing workloads, giving educational staff more time to spend with their students. AI-assisted marking software is just one example of this. It’s an exciting area that helps with marking beyond what has previously been possible with multiple-choice software. Through machine learning, it’s becoming possible to provide detailed feedback and support, which can help students with their assignments.

Another exciting area is adaptive learning platforms, which use AI in a similar way to music and TV/film platforms. The platform can recommend content or topics based on what it thinks students need to learn and what would be most beneficial. By combining the data interactions from students with information from similar users, these platforms can make relevant suggestions. They’re growing and maturing all the time, and, from a student perspective, this translates to more learning opportunities and intensive support during times when a tutor isn’t available. From an educator’s perspective, it provides detailed insights into students’ strengths and areas for improvement, which educators can then use to tailor their teaching to individual students’ needs.

Beyond this, AI can be used in many ways to improve the overall learning support experience for students. Chatbots and digital assistants are key examples. At Jisc’s National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education, we’re working with Bolton College which has developed a chatbot service called Ada. Ada provides students with answers to various questions about the college, including personalised responses related to timetables and grades.

While this is a useful support tool for enrolled students, this kind of technology can also be applied to students applying for university. For example, Leeds Beckett University has a chatbot that navigates students through the clearing process.

AI can also underpin efforts to support the wellbeing of students. Due to its ability to analyse a wide range of student data (processed on the basis of consent), it can be used to identify students who are at risk of failing a course, dropping out, or other adverse outcomes, and raise an alert for appropriate human intervention  before it gets to that point. We’re seeing some really good examples here like Georgia State University, which uses a system called GPS Advising to support students who are struggling.

With great information, comes great responsibility

Of course, there are also the ethical aspects to consider when using AI in education. Our job is to try and clarify these issues so that universities and colleges are able to utilise AI in an ethical way.

A key starting point for us is making use of an ethical framework that was developed by the University of Buckingham’s Institute for Ethical AI in Education. Jisc has also published a guidance document called ‘A Pathway to Responsible, Ethical AI’, which has been designed to help organisations think about the business case for AI technologies, and the extent to which they could align with their culture and values.

Moving forward, the National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education is conducting ground-breaking work to understand and manage the ethical implications of using chat bots in educational settings.

Final thoughts

As the AI in education market has not yet reached full maturity, one of the biggest challenges to accelerating its adoption across colleges and universities is the lack of definitive evidence on which products and services work well and are fit for purpose. Without such evidence, it remains difficult for organisations to make informed decisions.

To address this problem, our team will continue to pilot and evaluate promising AI solutions and will share findings with the sector. By doing so, we hope to enable colleges and universities to move forward along their AI journeys with confidence. 

Tom Moule, Product Lead, The National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education and Jisc

Tom Moule will be discussing AI in higher education at Ahead by Bett, taking place at ExCel London from the 23rd – 25th of March 2022

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