Artificial Intelligence: Tech trends in higher education

Dr. Phil Considine

young woman working on her computer
Dr. Phil Considine

There is no universally accepted definition of Artificial Intelligence (AI), though generally it can be described as ‘the use of digital technology to create systems capable of performing tasks commonly thought to require human intelligence’.

In a Higher Education context this has a wide range of meaning – many of our back office activities are already automated and rely on digital technologies – but from a learning perspective – AI tools such as ChapGPT and other Generative AI tools have caused much controversy and concerns in the academic community.

This is not the first time such concerns have been raised – in the mid-1990s when we saw the fast roll out of the Internet, concerns were raised about access to information and plagiarism via Essay Banks leading to new academic integrity problems. As Smart Phones became the norm, we heard concerns about ease of access and communication outside of examination halls. During Covid-19 ,we found ourselves having to allow students at times to self invigilate or to use digital invigilation. None of these caused the education system to collapse and AI is simply the next development that challenges Higher Education Institutions to innovate, adapt and to change.

Questions and Concerns

There are many questions and concerns about how AI can be used.

Can it be used to help generate exam questions? The answer to this question is yes, if all you want are generic questions that require only rote learning and do not need any reflection or contextualisation of knowledge and learning.

For grading we already have tasks that are graded digitally – we use a range of tools and techniques for assessing learning e.g. multiple choice questions are graded electronically.  More meaningful assessments – where we are considering the application of learning to the individual context cannot be done in this way and while there is no doubt that in future AI will be able to help with this, there is no immediate concerns in this area.  What AI has forced us to do is to think creatively about how we assess – making our assessments much more personalised and experience driven so that reflection is required – a skills that AI still has to master.

Flexible Approach to Learning

Where AI can be very helpful is in allowing us to digitalise content and to allow students a much more flexible approach to learning.

We are not concerned that our subject matter experts or operations colleagues will be replaced by ChatBots; however we do see their use in giving students quick access to basic information that might previously have taken time by our ops and admin colleagues to source – thus freeing up these teams to add more value to the student experience.

Equally we recognise that education programmes are about much more than the passive consumption of knowledge. We have a range of AI powered tools that can help with understanding skills gaps and to add value to personal, professional and leadership development as well as helping in career coaching – so helping to create the ecosystems for personal growth and professional development.

Ethical Considerations

There are, of course ethical considerations. Academic Integrity is a concern for all of us in the sector as it underpins the quality of our programmes and student learning, and we must ensure that students are submitting their own work and that they fully understand the materials that they are learning.

We have a wide range of digital tools available to us to help uncover cheating, and AI will doubtless help us to develop new and innovative ways to do this – but we are starting from a position of strength in this.

I don’t think it is particularly helpful to think of AI as a good or bad thing. It is similar to asking if the internet is a good or a bad thing – it has hugely enriched our lives and is a force for good. However, like anything it can be used for less laudable activities. I’m willing to bet that when Gutenberg invented the Printing Press in the 15th Century people asked the same questions and had the same concerns.

Note: The author, Dr. Phil Considine is the Director of Executive Development at Strathclyde Business School.

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