2024: AI Revolution in Higher Education

21st December 2023
Liam Young

My interest in the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) dates back to my undergraduate years at the London School of Economics. During this time, my concerns were firmly rooted in the potential consequences of AI’s impact on the labour market. My focus on the burgeoning promise of AI was one of its potential side effects – the mass displacement of jobs, a prospect that could exacerbate existing inequalities. However, as the years passed without any monumental public advancements in the field, the once-ominous spectre of AI receded into the backdrop of my concerns. It became overshadowed by the pressing issues of our times, such as Brexit, the formidable challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing conflict in Europe, and a plethora of other complex global matters that have shaped our recent history.

Recently, the events surrounding the departure and subsequent return of Sam Altman to OpenAI reignited my curiosity and spurred me to return to further deeper reading around AI. The launch of ChatGPT, approximately a year ago, marked a pivotal juncture in the AI landscape. It brought AI out of the exclusive realm of tech enthusiasts, policy experts, and the deeply concerned, and into the hands of everyday users. It allowed individuals to directly experience the remarkable capabilities of this technology, all at no cost. Undoubtedly, the technology itself is nothing short of extraordinary, and its promise equally so. Nevertheless, we all know that concerns persist about the potential societal impact of AI.

As I plunged back into comprehensive research on AI in 2023, I embarked on a parallel journey to uncover its real-world applications within my professional domain: the higher education sector. AI is making its presence felt in various capacities across the sector, yielding a spectrum of outcomes. Yet, with the continuous march of technological progress and the rapid proliferation of diverse AI platforms, it is abundantly clear that the integration of AI will persist and, in all likelihood, accelerate.

One of the most compelling facets of AI’s integration into higher education is its capacity to provide personalised learning experiences. AI algorithms, proficient in the analysis of students’ performance data and learning patterns, have given rise to the concept of tailored educational experiences. A real-world example of this would be Coursera, which has integrated AI to make personalised recommendations when a student enrols in a course, providing supplementary materials based on the student’s previous selections and performance.

Beyond personalised learning, AI has revolutionised student support and accessibility. Imagine a scenario involving a student named Sarah, diligently pursuing an online degree while juggling the demands of a full-time job and familial responsibilities. Late one night, Sarah encounters a particularly intricate concept in her economics course. This is where AI-powered virtual teaching assistants, such as IBM’s Watson Assistant for Education, step in to provide invaluable assistance. Watson Assistant serves as an unwavering resource, offering Sarah immediate responses to her queries, comprehensive explanations, and even recommending supplementary study materials. This ensures an uninterrupted learning journey for Sarah, regardless of the hour.

The drive towards inclusivity and accessibility within higher education has received substantial reinforcement from AI. A noteworthy example comes from the University of Glasgow here in the United Kingdom, which has harnessed AI-driven transcription and captioning services to ensure that lectures and educational materials are accessible to all students, including those with hearing impairments. This pioneering initiative underscores AI’s potential as a catalyst for creating a more inclusive and equitable learning environment.

AI’s transformative influence extends beyond students to encompass educators themselves. For instance, the University of Georgia has introduced a virtual teaching assistant named Jill Watson, which leverages AI to provide responses to common student inquiries in online forums. By automating routine administrative tasks, Jill Watson liberates instructors to allocate more time to more profound forms of mentorship and guidance for their students.

In recognition of the tremendous value that AI brings to the higher education sector, universities are increasingly investing in AI capabilities to enhance both their educational and administrative functions. By investing in AI capabilities, universities position themselves at the forefront of innovation and maintain their competitiveness in attracting both students and researchers. This strategic investment not only enriches the learning environment but also enhances the institution’s overall operational effectiveness and research prowess.

The rapid adoption of AI also carries potential downsides that warrant careful consideration. One of the most pressing concerns is that which I referenced in my opening paragraph – the potential for job displacement among educators and staff. As universities embrace AI-driven technologies for tasks like grading assignments, delivering lectures, and even providing personalised learning experiences, there has been much said about traditional roles within academia becoming obsolete. During my initial engagement with the topic, I took a similar view. My opinion now is that AI will operate in the coming years as a crutch to staff. It will exist as a tool for all of us to use in our own domains to assist with tasks, provide a better service, and to increase productivity. AI, despite its significant advancements, cannot fully replace the power of human teaching in the next few years, and perhaps even in the foreseeable future. Teachers engage students in discussions about ethics, values, and moral choices, providing a depth of understanding that AI, devoid of true consciousness, cannot replicate. While AI can be a valuable educational tool, it is clear that the unique qualities and insights that human educators bring to the table remain irreplaceable.

To mitigate the potential downsides, universities must prioritise a balanced approach to AI integration. First and foremost, they should invest in reskilling and upskilling programs to help educators and staff acquire the necessary skills to work alongside AI systems effectively. Moreover, universities should establish clear guidelines and ethical frameworks for the use of AI in education to ensure that technology is used responsibly and ethically. Transparency in decision-making processes, especially concerning the deployment of AI, is crucial to building trust within the academic community. Finding the right staff who understand AI and know how to make it work, is therefore crucial.

The integration of AI into higher education is an inexorable progression that promises to reshape and elevate the educational landscape. However, the selection of top-tier talent to navigate this transformative era is of paramount importance. To secure the very best minds in the field of AI and technology, universities should consider forming partnerships with executive search firms such as ours.

The specialised expertise and extensive networks that firms like Berwick Partners offer are invaluable in identifying and attracting exceptional professionals possessing the requisite knowledge, skills, and vision to lead and innovate within the academic environment. Berwick Partners’ tailored approach ensures that universities can access a diverse pool of candidates with proven track records in AI research, development, and implementation. In the fast-evolving realm of AI, where the demand for exceptional talent is exceptionally high, collaboration with an executive search firm provides universities with a distinct competitive advantage in securing the brightest minds in the industry.

What we do matters, and that is why we are deeply committed to the subject matter at hand.

For more information on our Education Practice please contact Liam Young.

Categories: Education