Keeping human values at the heart of AI in higher education
As a tidal wave of new technologies overtakes every area of higher education – from teaching and learning to assessment and course development – how do educators ensure that human values are not lost?
In the rush to get ahead of the accelerating curve, and adopt new technologies into practice, universities are at real risk of compromising those most human of skills, factors such as compassion and emotional intelligence. Yet university networks such as Universitas 21 are finding that it is precisely those values that can offer the key to making machine learning technology serve educators better.
So, as we strive to develop critical thinkers, creative innovators and well-rounded leaders of the future, what lessons can we learn from putting humans back at the heart of AI?
An ‘earthquake’ for higher education
The recent Universitas 21 Educational Innovation Symposium, held at McMaster University in Canada, brought together universities from across the globe to consider the issue that has taken over recent debate in the world of learning: artificial intelligence – something the event’s keynote speaker, Professor Simon Buckingham Shum, director of the Connected Intelligence Centre and a deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney, describes as “an earthquake for higher education”.
It is the highly visible crest of a wave of technologies infiltrating every area of educational delivery, from curriculum development to the delivery of teaching, student engagement, assessment practices and more. The revolution has prompted a debate on digital ethics in the application of these technologies.
Shum elaborates: “We are witnessing the largest rollout of AI in educational history, but in true Silicon Valley fashion, it is moving fast and breaking stuff. Artefacts that were until this year relatively trustworthy indicators of student understanding are suddenly more suspect.
“Shockingly, we may need students to evidence their process and ability to think on their feet at least as rigorously as judging documents they can produce. The starkest risk is that universities cannot assure the quality of learning if they continue to depend on artefacts that can be synthesised in a few seconds, and with a few minutes’ efforts massaged beyond the detection of policing software.
“But the enormous opportunity is that, finally, the tectonic plates of assessment practice may shift in the direction that many have long called for.”
In the midst of this dual risk and opportunity, that continues to develop each day, universities must interrogate anew their obligations, both to their students and to the wider society they are positioned in.
The U21 Symposium panels found that universities have a clear role to play in the development of frameworks and principles for generative AI use that take into account factors such as ethics and human emotion.
These technologies are shaping the workplaces and industries universities prepare their students for, along with much of how they will function in society. This creates a greater need than ever for higher education institutions to focus on equipping their graduates with the ability to engage meaningfully with these new tools and to adapt to a changing world.
There must be an effort to find an appropriate balance between experimenting with the capabilities of these new platforms and fostering the engagement of students with them.
Professor Moira Fischbacher-Smith, vice-principal of learning and teaching for the University of Glasgow, argues that universities need to take an active role in shaping the ethical approaches to this.
She comments: “The U21 EI Symposium provided an opportunity for us to really consider the obligation we have to students to prepare them for a world that is rapidly adopting AI technologies and the impact that will have on us all in terms of changes in the workplace.
“In so doing, we considered how we could adapt learning and teaching, and how we might grapple with the pace of change that may be required. We were reminded of how we can work together to evaluate our individual and collective approaches, share insights, and work with students and colleagues across the globe to shape our future engagement with AI technologies throughout the learning experience.”
Co-creation with students
Zachary Gan, a current student and member of the McMaster University task force on generative AI, takes a bright view on the benefits AI can bring to study. As part of his work, he has been looking at platforms such as ChatGPT and their effects on the undergraduate student experience.
He comments: “As institutions and individuals, we are currently in a stage where we’re desperately trying to catch up to technology. Although right now the debate seems to be focused on regulatory aspects, we also need to look at how this transforms the structure of education itself.
“If we are going to view AI in a positive light, it can be a catalyst for change in existing areas of tension – such as increasing student disillusionment and expanding class sizes. AI can be a challenge to traditional pedagogy, but this can also act as an indicator for what methods of teaching and learning are not currently working for students.”
The perspective of students is vital to the co-creation of a new educational future that harnesses the power of big data, machine learning and generative AI as a positive force.
This seismic technological shift also presents an opportunity for universities to reassess their course content and delivery, as well as assessment methods. Universities can look to leverage this into an opportunity to collaborate with students in co-creating innovative approaches that ensure meaningful evaluation and genuine learning outcomes.
Universities can foster a culture of innovation and co-creation by establishing student-led committees, hosting workshops and seminars, and leveraging technology platforms to encourage ongoing dialogue and feedback.
The use of AI can support the democratisation of higher education when applied to areas such as breaking down language barriers, yet it carries the risk of being viewed as a globalisation project that may not be available to all.
Political, social and economic factors are still at play with access to this technology and its adoption in educational delivery. Ensuring that co-creation is an embedded part of any change could offer one path to understanding the risks and impacts on all different parties, from the boardroom to the classroom, the server room and beyond.
Though the evolving challenges cannot be answered all at once, university networks such as U21 are finding that the human values of connection, collaboration and sharing best practices are routes forward in uncertain times.
Professor Jenny Dixon is provost of Universitas 21, a network of 28 universities from around the world. It brings leading institutions together to improve student experience, researcher engagement and educational innovation though shared excellence, knowledge and experiences.