June 2021

This session explored the potential impacts of Klaus Schwab's 4th Industrial Revolution (the pervasive internet, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning) on learning and teaching as we move into a post-pandemic world.

Professor Karen Stanton, Vice-Chancellor at Solent University in the UK, opened the discussion by explaining that AI was established as an academic discipline in 1955, and as a concept is nearly as old as the computer itself. However, she added that its emergence as a tool with real life applications has only come about over the last few decades.

There are no historical precedents for the paradigm shift AI will create,” she said, suggesting that its impact will be more significant than the advent of the internet.

Jonathan Baldwin from Jisc provided an overview of some of the key findings from a 2020 piece of research involving students, teachers and leaders on the reimagining of learning and teaching.

The idea that all students are digital natives and all staff are resistant to technology is clearly wrong,” he said, pointing out that digital poverty is very much a thing.

He said that a number of higher education institutions are already using AI, for example harnessing chatbot technology to provide student support. He added that he thinks adoption is likely to be relatively slow. “We all know that universities are great emulators, not always great innovators.” But he thinks that all it will take is for widespread and positive adoption in a couple of institutions for its use to snowball.

He showed some examples of how AI can be used, including generating questions, for sentiment analysis, and – more controversially – for face emotion detection.

Professor Karen Stanton then talked through how Solent University is working with industry leaders to use AI to transform the delivery of education and training with the maritime sector. She explained that 80 per cent of the world’s trade is by sea. “The world’s military, merchant navies and commercial shipping are at the cutting edge of technological development,” she added, pointing out that developments in autonomous shipping and submersibles are moving very rapidly.

In recent years, Solent University has invested significantly in simulation suites, enabling students to immerse themselves in a variety of situations and perform tasks that – unlike in a live environment – they can pause, rewind and debrief with their peers. “Using AI in our digital teaching and learning, we’re transforming the way students are learning and shaping the future of seafaring,” she said.

Professor Dr Jernej Pikalo, Professor of Political Science at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, explored the implications of the use of AI on education and skills policy. He said that in the future, he thinks we’ll need to be constantly updating our skills to keep up with the speed of technology. “The skills gap will be event greater,” he warned, and students need to master technology to be prepared for the future.

The speakers all agreed that AI is unlikely to replace the ‘human element’ of teaching. Jonathan Baldwin said that students have told him they miss their lectures, but probe a bit deeper and what they really miss is what goes on around the lecture – mingling with friends, having a private chat with their tutor, discussing assignments with other students.

Professor Dr Jernej Pikalo added that the shift to online learning because of the pandemic means students are missing out on the richness of the whole teaching process. He said, “Technology can’t replace human to human interaction, but it can help with shedding some of the burdens.