UK launches national centre to accelerate AI use in universities

Team of experts will pilot AI products and provide support and training to institutions

March 19, 2021
Close up of a man using a mobile phone with an AI chatbot
Source: iStock

Jisc, the UK higher education sector’s digital services provider, is set to establish a new national centre for artificial intelligence to help accelerate the adoption of the technology in universities.

Andy McGregor, director of edtech at the membership organisation, said the centre would comprise “a small team of AI experts” who would have four main goals: piloting existing AI products in real educational settings; recommending and helping institutions adopt the best products; providing on-the-ground support and training to institutional staff; and identifying opportunities for new AI products in education.

Recruitment of the new team would start in April, he said, and Jisc was already looking for institutions that would be willing to be “early adopters” of AI technology and run pilots. The centre will be based at Jisc but will partner with universities and colleges, start-ups, other AI expert bodies and government staff.

Mr McGregor said AI had “significant potential to improve education” – in particular by offering students a more personalised experience, relieving staff of manual tasks and leading to different types of courses and teaching approaches – and the main aim of the centre was to accelerate its adoption within colleges and universities in an ethical way.

He said universities would be slow to adopt AI without the national centre because the sector as a whole lacked the necessary technical knowledge and skills; institutions lacked an ethical framework for the technology; most institutions’ data were not organised in a way to benefit from AI; and institutions were experimenting with the technology individually rather than as a sector.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr McGregor said the centre would be initially funded by Jisc but it was considering other sources of funding, too.

“We’ll be looking to partner with other people, work with providers. There are plenty of routes we can explore but nothing certain yet,” he said.

He added that while there were “huge benefits on offer” that were worth “trying to seize”, Jisc was also “aware of the pitfalls of AI”.

“A lot of people are very wary of the dangers here. I think a large part of what the centre will do is making sure that AI is used in a way that is ethical, that values student consent and that takes into account staff concerns about AI being used to replace the parts of education that it is really important are done by a human,” Mr McGregor said.

Michael Webb, Jisc’s director of technology and analytics, added that the first set of pilots would focus on testing AI approaches that are already working well in single institutions and trying to replicate those in multiple universities. These include chatbots and digital assistants, adaptive learning systems and automated assessment.

Later, he said, the centre would explore initiatives that are not generally being used in the UK sector but would be possible with current technology, such as dialogue-based tutoring systems, AI-assisted collaborative learning, recommendation engines and AI-assisted content creation.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles