Keith Burnet is a Senior Communications Consultant and Director of strategic communications with a rich background in executive and non-executive leadership, innovation in communications, and marketing for think tanks, higher education organisations, and NGOs. Recent roles include Senior Communications Advisor, at United Nations University; Managing Director, Communications and Publishing, at Chatham House; and Chair, of All Survivors Project. He is also Senior Counsel at Cast From Clay, a London-based communications agency.
In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is emerging as a transformative force. Students and universities across the world are leveraging AI in a multitude of ways, including as a research and study aid and in student recruitment, but the full implications of AI are yet to manifest themselves. The impact of new technologies is often overstated in the short term but understated in the long term. This may not be true of AI which is revolutionising many sectors now and set to grow exponentially in the coming years.
The revolution is destined to go far beyond the way we study and develop knowledge – and work – no one really knows the path our collective AI journey will take us on. We do know, however, that AI presents us with more questions than answers.
For example, will AI democratise education and level the playing field because everyone has access to the world’s knowledge at their fingertips? Or will it exacerbate existing educational inequalities because not all students and educators have equal access to the new technologies? Will students simply cut and paste AI responses in their coursework and use it as a shortcut to discover information? Will educators and support staff be able to keep up with developments and, if not, what kind of job displacement will they face? What will AI mean for traditional teaching roles and exactly how will education methods change in the coming years?
AI systems will soon be ubiquitous in education, as elsewhere. Routine tasks will likely be minimised, and productivity boosted. This is already happening with many elements of online learning and if we do things correctly, human creativity and problem-solving will have more time to thrive and flourish. This could mean students will have more space to develop something unique to say about a topic or their research. Educators will have more time and freedom to be innovative in their teaching methods. In turn, this will put more emphasis on both students and educators to be more resourceful and individual.
Generative AI can provide a lot of information about a lot of topics – but it doesn’t (yet) understand things the way people do. It may be able to produce a well-written, if rather mundane paper that would pass an exam, but it certainly wouldn’t get a distinction. AI can help us as an assistant, to fill a blank sheet of paper, as an idea prompt, but it’s rather less good at problem-solving, and it still can’t match the levels of human creativity, empathy, and experience that really make the world go around.
What AI can do – and do very well – is analyse vast amounts of data with remarkable speed and accuracy to provide higher education institutions with valuable insights into prospective students and their behaviours and interests. Used correctly, it will make better, more cost-effective decisions in recruitment strategies and tailored communications which will better demonstrate a university’s understanding of each student’s unique aspirations.
AI will also play a pivotal role in personalising the learning experience for students. By analysing individual student performance and behaviour, AI will be able to shape assignments to each student’s needs and pace. It will offer multilingual support to international students as AI-driven translation services become essential to improving recruitment processes and as an aid to learning and providing grammatically correct, highly fluent, written assignments.
In online learning environments, where the one-size-fits-all approach can be a challenge for many students, AI will be able to identify when a student is struggling with a particular concept and provide additional resources or support as well as grade their work. AI-driven personalised tutoring systems will provide students with on-demand assistance on issues ranging from mental health and well-being to study topics. The systems coming online now can adapt to the student’s learning style, offering explanations, quizzes, and exercises tailored to their needs.
These are some of the manly likely benefits of AI. There are, of course, many risks too. Education and cognitive development go hand-in-hand and using AI to take the friction out of learning and everyday life could lead to a decline in cognitive awareness if we are not using our brains properly and challenging ourselves. And if the world’s knowledge is available on our laptops and phones, will it be necessary to send generations of children and students to education institutions to learn by rote?
Students may also grapple with the need for enhanced digital literacy skills, bias in algorithms, and concerns about privacy and data security. Educators will face hurdles in adapting to new teaching methods, addressing the digital divide, and navigating ethical considerations related to the implementation and use of AI. Further, resistance to change and the potential high cost of implementing AI technologies in educational settings could complicate the adoption process.
Despite these challenges – as well as likely wider considerations for education policy – it is vital that, collectively, we strive to ensure that we don’t just get better, more creative technology but that the technology makes us better, more creative people. This is still very much within our grasp.