Becoming industry disruptors: Why UK universities should be developing AI

When it comes to technology, UK higher education is a late adopter, but we can’t fall behind other countries who already leverage AI in education, says Sunderland’s pro-vice chancellor, John MacIntyre

Artificial intelligence (AI) has presented the world with another industrial revolution, and this time, the UK is sitting far from the top. We aren’t developing these disruptive technologies in the same way as, for example, countries in the far-east. We don’t have the kind of scale or impact that we’ve had in the past, and although our institutions are quick to research and develop AI, we are slow to commercialise it and slow to use it – particularly in the higher education sphere.

We’ve got a lot to learn, challenges to face, and real things to confront. We can’t hide from them. We’ve got to be honest about where we stand in the grand scheme of things, and change ways of teaching and learning in order to adapt to student expectations and the evolving technology industry.


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Is higher education lagging behind with AI?

In higher education, we are all relatively familiar with AI or a bot of some kind, and the idea that it can be used within a teaching and learning paradigm. It’s not only plausible, but it already exists in some regard. In our own way, we are recognising that these technologies are vital to teaching and learning in the 21st century.

The challenges begin here: UK higher education is typically a very conservative sector, and from a technological point of view, is a late adopter compared to countries in the far-east. We have this conundrum of a sector that develops AI through research and development, but doesn’t use it in the teaching of its students. This is a problem for students, who must be able to compete on an international level in an increasingly globalised economy.

Changing the way we think about AI

UK higher education could become an adopter and user of AI in a much more fundamental way than it is now. We can do so much more than research and development. Our focus has, typically, been skewed away from the people who will be using these evolving technologies, but there are big opportunities that come with changing to a new, adaptive way of thinking when teaching in the modern world. We must still focus on researching and developing, of course, but we cannot forget the people who will be working with AI, the people using it to learn, the people for whom it will become a part of everyday life.

We’ve got to be honest about where we stand in the grand scheme of things, and change ways of teaching and learning in order to adapt to student expectations and the evolving technology industry.

The kind of teaching that we were doing in the 1990s just wouldn’t make the grade with students today, who want more, who need more, and who expect more. The ‘chalk and talk’ paradigm isn’t acceptable anymore. Students learn in their own way, at their own pace. They want to use devices. They want something that is going to challenge them in a different way.

Challenges that educators should be aware of

There are a lot of things that those working in higher education are struggling to get to grips with, questions of ethics and control. We have no framework for the controls we want to have over intelligence systems, nor do we have a clear ethical framework for how we go about developing them. If something has the ability to become more intelligent, where does that stop? How do you control it? What happens when we develop levels of intelligence so high that it displays something we recognise as emotions, feelings or personality? You have to think about how humans and AI will coexist in the future.

We need to discuss how these challenges will affect the way jobs and industry work in the future. Ultimately, they will affect the way students are taught to engage with the world.

This is a debate that encompasses so many audiences, not only from higher education, but it is crucial that those in the HE sector can understand the difficulties that AI presents. After all, the students of today are growing up and learning with these technologies, and we cannot educate them without understanding them ourselves.


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Having come from a different time, where students didn’t have to pay for their own education to a time where they do, I see that their expectations are much higher. AI is one way of developing cost-efficient models to give to students, to try and support what they’re looking for in their educational development. Those who move in the sphere of higher education must understand the technologies that are changing our world, and start using them to engage with students’ learning.

John MacIntyre is pro-vice chancellor (internationalisation) at the University of Sunderland. He recently presented at the Higher Education Partnership Network event, which took place from 30 April–1 May at the De Vere Horwood Estate in Milton Keynes.