Making the most of AI in Higher Education

30 November 2023

Oliver Matthews, former CMO at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, examines what AI means for higher education and how to embrace its positives.


A few days ago, Elon Musk hit the headlines during a discussion with UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, at the closing of the recent AI Safety Summit predicting the end of jobs. A society where all work activities can be carried out more quickly and reliably by AI instead of by a human. For anyone who has read some of Isaac Asimov’s work, this will sound eerily familiar but also a scary proposition!

The end of jobs is still a long way off, but in the space of a few short months since ChatGPT hit the mainstream consciousness AI technology has already become a significant disruptive force across industries - and higher education is no exception.

The most prominent of these relates to the use of ChatGPT and similar tools to aid students in their research, course work and examinations. However, despite the obvious concerns and dangers of unregulated use, AI presents universities with not just an opportunity but a necessity to revolutionize how they teach, research and operate their administration. And, given the already prevalent use of generative AI among students, no university can afford to sit back and ignore the impact on its ecosystem. 

As many universities struggle with staff shortages and knowledge retention due to staff turnover in both administration and academia, at the same time as student numbers grow and service expectations increase, AI presents a solution. Rather than looking at replacing jobs, as per Elon’s dramatic claim, AI is changing jobs and creating new roles.

AI is already quietly disrupting higher education.  In administration, AI tools are being used to process large amounts of data related to recruitment, admission, and retention. They facilitate decision-making processes and evaluate productivity and performance. AI contributes to teaching support by offering adaptive assessments, automated practice opportunities, personalized tutoring, feedback, and content recommendations. It plays a role in content creation, code writing, resolving accessibility issues, reconfiguring writing processes, and detecting plagiarism.

Furthermore, AI tools enhance learning support by providing self-service chat bots, identifying at-risk students, recommending courses, boosting motivation, and predicting student performance. In the realm of research support, AI can sift through extensive datasets to identify patterns, construct models, recommend relevant articles, and support manuscripts for publication. This technology has the potential to not just improve efficiency but to allow staff to refocus their scarce time where it really counts – on supporting students with their learning journey.

Contemplating the future of AI in higher education necessitates a strategic and comprehensive approach. First and foremost, institutions must foster campuswide discussions on AI's impact, promoting understanding among administrators and faculty about its promises and limitations. Transparent dialogue should address concerns such as data ownership, intellectual property, security, and privacy. Establishing frameworks for ethical governance, like the Rome Call for AI Ethics and the Data Ethics Decision Aid, is imperative to guide AI's responsible use.

We can debate the positives and negatives of AI in society, but the reality is that it is already present and actively being used across higher education institutions. The question is not whether to embrace this new technology, but how to best make use of the opportunity within a safe, constructive and integrated framework.

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