Exploring the Revolutionary Role of AI in Higher Education

The launch of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot released by OpenAI at the end of last year, and the more recent resigning of Geoffrey Hinton, one of the founders of Google, has brought AI and its pros and pitfalls into the global conversation.

Hinton, who has been called the ‘Godfather of AI’, said he quit early in May to speak freely about the dangers of AI. These include that AI systems could eventually become more intelligent than humans and take over the planet; that in the wrong hands, the technology could be used to divide society and gain power; and that it could put a vast array of jobs in peril.

Advances in AI technology are, indeed, moving at breakneck speed, and policy governing its development and use is largely lacking. While governments and organisations race to catch up, AI technology is becoming increasingly embedded in our daily life and work.

While we are still some way from computers taking over the planet, everything from built-in smart assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant and image recognition for face unlock in cellphones, to algorithms that govern your feed in social media, involves machine-learning technology. Many uses of AI today remain – so far – largely beneficial to society.

AI in education

AI technology is being used in the education sector to support learning. Particularly at higher education level, the technology has great potential – if applied in the right way.

“The rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is having a major impact on education. Advances in AI-powered solutions carry enormous potential for social good and the achievement of the [United Nations’] Sustainable Development Goals. Making this happen requires system-wide policy adjustments and calls for robust ethical oversight as well as in-depth engagement with practitioners and researchers globally,” says Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, in the report AI and Education – Guidance for Policy-makers.

“Policy-makers and educators have entered uncharted territory that raises fundamental questions on how the future of learning will interact with AI. The bottom line is that the
deployment and use of AI in education must be guided by the core principles of inclusion and equity. For this to happen, policies must promote equitable and inclusive access to AI
and the use of AI as a public good, with focus on empowering girls and women and disadvantaged socio-economic groups.”

There are many advantages to using AI in the educational context. Revolutionising how we think about education, AI offers the opportunity to personalise the learning experience. By forging customised learning pathways and providing tailored feedback, students can learn at their own pace and style. Highly accurate and timely automated grading via AI algorithms can free up educators so that they can offer more on personal attention to students, boosting a more human-centred approach to pedagogy.

AI can also boost efficiency, with technologies including deep learning, natural language processing, and machine learning allowing students to access educational materials more quickly.

Even ChatGPT has a place in the “classroom” – it can be misused by students, with AI-generated text now sometimes evading detection even by tools such as Zero, AI Content Detector and AI Detector, but it offers an opportunity for learning. As with any AI language model, ChatGPT is limited in terms of accuracy and dealing with complex or abstract concepts. It can provide incorrect, biased or culturally insensitive outputs despite advanced training on a large text repository.

ChatGPT can act as a case study to equip students with core AI competencies, including understanding how AI collects and can manipulate data, and skills to ensure safety and protection of personal data. It can also boost students’ critical skills and problem-solving abilities – both crucial for success in the rapidly changing, technology-driven 21st century, where workers must be adept at assessing and applying information.

In tertiary education, students must actively engage with course content, and create their own meaning from it by critically reflecting on both the learned materials and their own experiences and perspectives. They must synthesise new ideas and information from this process.

AI in African education

Students in Africa are embracing digitisation in the educational context. In May 2021, Honoris United Universities, the first Pan-African group of private higher education and professional education institutions on the continent, released results from an internal study of 10,000 students on their willingness to digitise the educational process. The survey showed that learners within the network have a strong appetite for digitalisation at each step of the student journey.

Honoris has already embraced digital technology across its campuses with the aim of empowering the next generation of academic leaders and professionals through future-oriented learning.

In a new partnership with Lecturio, one of the world’s leading online medical education platforms, Honoris reinforces its position as a leader in health education in Africa by offering a new digital adaptive learning solution. Adaptive learning recreates at-scale personalised learning with the benefits of a one-to-one personal tutor, to focus on creating higher proficiency in learners, with long-term memory retention and improved outcomes.

Honoris institutions UPSAT and Université Centrale are offering access to the Lecturio platform for Healthcare students across four campuses in Tunisia. Through Lecturio, users gain access to premier medical education materials and artificial intelligence learning support of over 10,000 videos with linked quiz questions, concept pages, and a clinical case question bank.

In the 21st century, in Africa as everywhere, the student journey from registration to employment and beyond needs to integrate the digital. AI can support teaching and facilitate learning throughout this journey. Understanding AI and its impacts – both good and potentially bad – are crucial for those stepping into the technology-driven world of work. Deployed in the right way, AI can help transform education and training systems for the common good of society. It can also play its part in building an inclusive and sustainable future.