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Sebastian Reed
Sebastian Reed

Artificial Intelligence In Higher Education And...



Despite the enormous opportunities that AI might afford to support teaching and learning, new ethical implications and risks come in with the development of AI applications in higher education. For example, in times of budget cuts, it might be tempting for administrators to replace teaching by profitable automated AI solutions. Faculty members, teaching assistants, student counsellors, and administrative staff may fear that intelligent tutors, expert systems and chat bots will take their jobs. AI has the potential to advance the capabilities of learning analytics, but on the other hand, such systems require huge amounts of data, including confidential information about students and faculty, which raises serious issues of privacy and data protection. Some institutions have recently been established, such as the Institute for Ethical AI in EducationFootnote 3 in the UK, to produce a framework for ethical governance for AI in education, and the Analysis & Policy Observatory published a discussion paper in April 2019 to develop an AI ethics framework for Australia.Footnote 4




Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education and...



The birth of AI goes back to the 1950s when John McCarthy organised a two-month workshop at Dartmouth College in the USA. In the workshop proposal, McCarthy used the term artificial intelligence for the first time in 1956 (Russel & Norvig, 2010, p. 17):


The study [of artificial intelligence] is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves.


Given this understanding of AI, what are potential areas of AI applications in education, and higher education in particular? Luckin, Holmes, Griffiths, and Forcier (2016) describe three categories of AI software applications in education that are available today: a) personal tutors, b) intelligent support for collaborative learning, and c) intelligent virtual reality.


In the context of higher education, we use the concept of the student life-cycle (see Reid, 1995) as a framework to describe the various AI based services on the broader institutional and administrative level, as well as for supporting the academic teaching and learning process in the narrower sense.


The purpose of a systematic review is to answer specific questions, based on an explicit, systematic and replicable search strategy, with inclusion and exclusion criteria identifying studies to be included or excluded (Gough, Oliver & Thomas, 2017). Data is then coded and extracted from included studies, in order to synthesise findings and to shine light on their application in practice, as well as on gaps or contradictions. This contribution maps 146 articles on the topic of artificial intelligence in higher education.


The initial search string (see Table 1) and criteria (see Table 2) for this systematic review included peer-reviewed articles in English, reporting on artificial intelligence within education at any level, and indexed in three international databases; EBSCO Education Source, Web of Science and Scopus (covering titles, abstracts, and keywords). Whilst there are concerns about peer-review processes within the scientific community (e.g., Smith, 2006), articles in this review were limited to those published in peer-reviewed journals, due to their general trustworthiness in academia and the rigorous review processes undertaken (Nicholas et al., 2015). The search was undertaken in November 2018, with an initial 2656 records identified.


In order to extract the data, all articles were uploaded into systematic review software EPPI ReviewerFootnote 6 and a coding system was developed. Codes included article information (year of publication, journal name, countries of authorship, discipline of first author), study design and execution (empirical or descriptive, educational setting) and how artificial intelligence was used (applications in the student life cycle, specific applications and methods). Articles were also coded on whether challenges and benefits of AI were present, and whether AI was defined. Descriptive data analysis was carried out with the statistics software R using the tidyr package (Wickham & Grolemund, 2016).


More importantly, this study has provided an overview of the vast array of potential AI applications in higher education to support students, faculty members, and administrators. They were described in four broad areas (profiling and prediction, intelligent tutoring systems, assessment and evaluation, and adaptive systems and personalisation) with 17 sub-categories. This structure, which was derived from the systematic review, contributes to the understanding and conceptualisation of AIEd practice and research.


That being said, a stunning result of this review is the dramatic lack of critical reflection of the pedagogical and ethical implications as well as risks of implementing AI applications in higher education. Concerning ethical implications, privacy issues were also noted to be rarely addressed in empirical studies in a recent systematic review on Learning Analytics (Misiejuk & Wasson, 2017). More research is needed from educators and learning designers on how to integrate AI applications throughout the student lifecycle, to harness the enormous opportunities that they afford for creating intelligent learning and teaching systems. The low presence of authors affiliated with Education departments identified in our systematic review is evidence of the need for educational perspectives on these technological developments.


The lack of theory might be a syndrome within the field of educational technology in general. In a recent study, Hew, Lan, Tang, Jia, and Lo (2019) found that more than 40% of articles in three top educational technology journals were wholly a-theoretical. The systematic review by Bartolomé et al. (2018) also revealed this lack of explicit pedagogical perspectives in the studies analysed. The majority of research included in this systematic review is merely focused on analysing and finding patterns in data to develop models, and to make predictions that inform student and teacher facing applications, or to support administrative decisions using mathematical theories and machine learning methods that were developed decades ago (see Russel & Norvig, 2010). This kind of research is now possible through the growth of computing power and the vast availability of big digital student data. However, at this stage, there is very little evidence for the advancement of pedagogical and psychological learning theories related to AI driven educational technology. It is an important implication of this systematic review, that researchers are encouraged to be explicit about the theories that underpin empirical studies about the development and implementation of AIEd projects, in order to expand research to a broader level, helping us to understand the reasons and mechanisms behind this dynamic development that will have an enormous impact on higher education institutions in the various areas we have covered in this review.


To remain competitive in a rapidly evolving market, higher education must be open to welcoming new AI tools into their classrooms and using them to create engaging and equitable learning experiences for their students that will prepare them for the future.


Many have argued that the development of artificial intelligence has more potential to change higher education than any other technological advance. For instance, Klutka et al. (2018) has listed the following goals for AI in higher education:


Priority was given to papers that contained empirical research on outcomes and practices, although the editors were also interested in social and ethical issues that have arisen (or could arise) from the application of AI in higher education.


When we winnowed out articles that did not meet the fairly broad criteria of being about the use of AI for supporting teaching and learning, we were left with 23 articles for review. This somewhat small number in itself was surprising, given the interest in the potential of AI in higher education.


After review, only four of the 23 articles were considered appropriate for publication, based on their academic quality. In other words, only four of the submitted articles provided sound empirical evidence about the effect of AI applications on teaching and learning in higher education and one of these was a (thorough) review of the previous literature (Zawacki-Richter et al.), rather than a specific study itself. We will return to the reasons for the relatively small number of acceptable papers later in the editorial, but first let us look at the articles that have been accepted.


The Zawacki-Richter at al. paper gives readers a good overview of the various areas where AI is being applied in higher education, as well as an indication of which areas researchers have tended to focus on. From these 146 articles, they were able to identify four key areas of AI applications for teaching and learning:


They found that the current use of learning analytics and artificial education in the field of further education is only at a preliminary stage, mainly due to a lack of demand from educational institutions, and they propose some of the reasons for this.


The purpose of this special edition was to examine the potential and actual impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on higher education. In terms of the actual impact, we must conclude that on the evidence presented, it is currently marginal at best.


From the articles submitted, few showed any evidence-based significant influence of AI on teaching and learning in post-secondary or higher education. The main impact has been on the prediction of student success or failure. There was no valid evidence of improved learning outcomes, or radical, or even tangential pedagogical changes resulting from AI applications. 041b061a72


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