Reform Scotland

AI in UK education can be transformative – Jonathan Rees

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been around for a while, but one thing is for sure, it is here to stay. Advancements in awareness and uptake of AI has grown significantly, especially since November last year when the generative AI tool ChatGPT came into the mainstream. Naturally, something of this scale and potential gave rise to legitimate concerns in the education sector in relation to the perceived negative ways in which students could use AI.

Almost a year after initial headlines, it is clear that we must embrace AI much as we do with any other tool that falls into the hands of educators – think of iPads in the early 2010s.

When we lift the lid, we see that students and educators have actually been using AI in one way or another for several years now. It has been common-place in our daily lives, influencing what we see, saving us time when sending messages and many more ways.

To better understand AI and more specifically ChatGPT, let’s peel back the layers. At the heart of ChatGPT is a set of rules that include ‘if’ and ‘then’ statements that have been around for decades. Humans ask questions to which we get answers based on keywords placed within the algorithm.

In recent times, ChatGPT and other advanced technologies have made their way into the education sector as advancements in generative AI, which means there are countless new applications for the service as part of daily practice.

In writing this, I asked chatGPT how AI could support college lecturers in their work, and it wasn’t short on feedback.

‘I’ can help with personalised learning, intelligent tutoring, lesson planning, automated grading and administrative tasks such as assisting with enrolment, it told me. Essentially, ‘I’ can be a very effective teaching assistant, it said.

The lecturer’s role has evolved dramatically in recent times and that is without even considering the impact of Covid. With the varied roles and duties required of a lecturer, coupled with the demands and challenges of planning, delivering and assessing learning daily, if AI can support us, make us more efficient in our work, why would we not embrace that? From giving us ideas to bring learning activities up-to-date, providing inspiration for multiple choice quizzes, populating lesson plan templates, and even helping generate learning materials (e.g. PowerPoint presentations), there are significant opportunities to use the technology to boost efficiency and wide appeal. As always though, it is imperative that this is owned by a human lecturer, to shape AI’s output to meet the needs of our students.

The college experience should be, and very often is, a transformative one for students. The Covid pandemic certainly transformed the college experience and, whilst few would argue it was good for students, there’s no doubt we have learned much from it.

Whenever I get asked why I work in the college sector, my answer is quite simple. I want to help prepare the workforce of the future. As my role has evolved from a lecturer in sport to Head of Professional Development across a whole sector, my answer remains. When looking at this in the context of AI, our industries are embracing AI, either through necessity or innovation. It is critical that we, as the college workforce, prepare employees of the future with the necessary digital knowledge, skills and capabilities in relation to AI to thrive.

The impact of the lockdowns accelerated the development of digital tools to support learning, particularly platforms which facilitated remote teaching. However, one respondent to our research measuring the digital capabilities of the college workforce, published by College Development Network (CDN) in August 2021, said: “It was like building a plane after it had already taken off.” Lecturers had to try to get up-to-speed quickly with their digital skills and it was a challenging time.

Following on from that research, we have since created a Digital Capability Hub to support the entire workforce to develop the digital skills required to navigate the changing landscape of our work, including working positively with AI. CDN is perfectly positioned as the practice improvement agency for the college sector, to work with and lead colleges to improve practice in this ever-evolving space.

Technology has been and continues to be an essential tool that helps to deliver the curriculum in Scotland’s colleges, particularly in the Highlands and Islands and more recently in Dumfries and Galloway. Technology allows more learners from rural locations to engage in learning experiences, minimising barriers including location, transport, and work commitments.

Dumfries and Galloway College is making use of AI to support student recruitment. It is harnessing Purlos and Jenni AI bot to help improve student experience and optimise recruitment, enrolment, and onboarding. They have done this by using AI to generate personalised messages tailored to the experience of individual students. This has increased efficiencies in the Admissions Team, allowing them to focus their attention on more complex cases and onboarding activities.

Meanwhile, lecturers at Ayrshire College have been using ChatGPT to develop high quality SQA units that meet the requirements of pre-existing SQA descriptors. And North East Scotland College (NESCol) has shown how ChatGPT and other AI tools can be used as ‘study buddies’ to assist students in improving their writing, helping them research, and keeping them motivated. By using ChatGPT as a study buddy, students can ask questions related to their subject and create custom-made quizzes or flashcards based on their learning goals. The College has found that this offers a smart and fun way to enhance the learning experience and, to further support students, it has developed an online toolkit to guide students on how they can turn ChatGPT into their 24/7 study buddy.

I want to stress, though, that AI will complement, rather than replace, the wider college workforce. The key is to understand and embrace AI as part of our daily practice, exploring how we can use the latest technology to free lecturers up for more meaningful interactions with our student population. Interestingly in my earlier conversation with ChatGPT, it spat out the paragraph below when we asked how AI could support college lecturers.

“It’s important to note that while AI can enhance teaching practices, it should not replace human teachers. The role of teachers remains crucial in providing guidance, support and fostering meaningful connections with students. AI should be seen as a tool to augment and support their work.”

A vast majority of lecturers and teaching staff don’t actively use AI tools and we are currently exploring how to ease the way onto the tech path for everyone.

What is clear is that, whatever we think of it, AI is the future, and it is essential that we have a skilled workforce capable of moulding AI’s development in the education sector while simultaneously preparing our students with the skills they need to excel as part of the workforce of the future.

CDN is hosting an event on 22 September at Forth Valley College, Falkirk campus, ‘AI in College Education: Policy, Practice, and Productivity’. Find out more and book your place here.

Jonathan Rees is Head of Professional Development at the College Development Network