From education to employment

New National Centre will ‘unleash the power of AI’ in education

Andy McGregor, Director of EdTech, Jisc

@Jisc report on #ArtificialIintelligence in Universities #AndColleges underpins ambitious venture to embed immersive technologies in post-16 education 

A new National Centre for Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Tertiary Education, launching today (27 Apr), seeks to embed immersive technologies university and college education. 

The initiative – which has been welcomed by global technology companies including Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft – is led by the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc, and supported by innovation-focused universities and colleges throughout the UK. It will initially be staffed by a dedicated team of seven AI experts, plus consultants and partners from industry and education.

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The National Centre supports the government’s AI Strategy, which the digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, announced in March, saying:

“Unleashing the power of AI is a top priority”. 

Yet while AI is predicted to increase our national GDP by 10.3% by 2030, and despite Office for Artificial Intelligence estimates that AI could boost productivity in some industries by 30%, a lack of investment in AI for education is endangering the UK’s global competitiveness. Nationally, we are yet to meaningfully embed technology within higher and further education.  

Jisc’s National Centre addresses this gap 

Informed by the AI in tertiary education report into the current uses and impact of these technologies, the National Centre aims to deliver AI solutions at 60 colleges and 30 universities within five years.  

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Jisc’s director of edtech, Andy McGregor, says:

“Universities and colleges are at a critical juncture. COVID showed the possibilities technology offers in delivering courses remotely. AI offers the chance to help every student reach their highest potential by offering highly personalised education. However, this will only work if AI is used to augment the important role teachers play in education, and if ethics are at the forefront of implementing AI tools.” 

The National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education will identify effective AI solutions, measuring them against its ethical framework, and testing how they improve learner experiences. The Centre will also develop new AI solutions, and build systems to both support teaching staff and reduce the burden of admin. Its main aim is to ensure AI is used in ways that augment teachers’ skills and supports human-led education by developing staff skills and confidence in using AI tools. To achieve this, a team of Jisc consultants will provide on-the-ground support, helping to install AI solutions in universities and colleges, and training staff to use these to bolster their teaching practice.  

Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at University College London, comments:

“AI is full of promise, but that promise will not be realised unless government, educators, experts and businesses work collaboratively to harness its potential.

“Now is the moment to accelerate AI adoption in tertiary education, and I’m very excited by the prospect of a National Centre in this field.”  

Artificial intelligence will be more revolutionary than the internet

The AI in tertiary education report highlights AI-driven services currently used at pioneering institutions – such as Bolton College’s digital assistant, Ada, which supports students by offering tailored responses to their questions. 

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Keen to share this technology and develop its capabilities, Bolton’s information learning technology manager, Aftab Hussain, says:

“Jisc’s National Centre for AI in Tertiary Education will be essential, sharing information, advice and guidance, and establishing an ethical framework with the sector that could guide the design, management and use of AI products and services. 

“Agility and flexibility are no longer optional in education,” Hussain adds.

 “Developing our use and understanding of AI will only aid our journey to a more inclusive experience.”  

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Jisc’s CEO, Dr Paul Feldman says:

“This unique and collaborative venture combines Jisc’s expertise in technology-enhanced education with insights from our college and university members, and support from the world’s leading technology solutions providers.

“The potential is huge, reimagining how future generations are taught, and preparing students to make the most of the advanced technologies around us.” 

AI in tertiary education – A summary of the current state of play

AI in tertiary education report front cover

Artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming the world and education is no exception. In 2019, $3.67bn was invested in AI edtech start-ups, up from $2.89bn in 2018. AI education solutions are attracting this investment because they offer considerable benefits to learners, teachers, and education institutions.

This report has two main aims:

  1. To summarise the types of AI applications that are available in education today
  2. To provide a number of case studies where they have already demonstrated impact

AI can transform students’ education outcomes – for example, by providing a personalised learning experience that improves social mobility and student wellbeing.

AI-powered personalised learning could support every learner to choose the right education for their career pathway, reach their highest potential, and acquire the skills required to thrive in a digital workplace.

Data is often the critical foundation for this kind of change, and AI projects are likely to build on existing innovations, such as learning analytics. This has never been more important than as colleges and universities emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic into a world where technology will play a greater role in the delivery of education, and the demand for digital skills from both employer and students alike has increased.

This report considers legal and ethical issues and briefly speculate on what AI applications might be available in the near future.

There is, of course, much discussion about whether automation or use of AI for any given task is in any way desirable. For example, AI can be used to automate or semi-automate marking. This could be considered an inappropriate use of the technology, with marking being a key dialogue between the learner and teacher. This debate is outside the scope of this document.

Here, the authors simply aim to describe what is currently possible, explain briefly how it works and, where possible, give evidence about its effectiveness and maturity.

The 2019 “Review of the online learning and artificial intelligence education market“, highlighted the crucial role of technology in raising the quality of technical education, while also acknowledging the sector’s limited understanding of these emerging fields. The review recommended Department for Education (DfE) funded ‘test beds’ should be provided to help FE providers gain a greater appreciation of the potential value and benefits of AIEd and online learning.

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