Generative AI in further education and skills – the myths, the threats and the opportunities

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Jisc is the UK higher, further education and skills sectors’ not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions, championing the importance and potential of digital technologies for UK education and research. Jisc will be holding a workshop at the ColegauCymru Annual Conference, looking at navigating the opportunities and challenges of AI in our colleges. Here they share their insight.

The post-16 education sector in Wales is no stranger to digital transformation. Since 2019, Jisc has been working with the Welsh Government to develop and implement Digital 2030, a shared vision for digital learning during the next decade. 

Co-produced with further education (FE) institutions, work-based learning and adult learning providers, this initiative supports learners and staff in their journey to become confident digital citizens, ready to embrace new technologies and develop skills that will drive the Welsh economy.

As the UK’s digital, data and technology agency for tertiary education, and a key delivery partner for the Digital 2030: Strategic Framework, Jisc helps Welsh colleges understand the challenges of emerging technologies and the opportunities associated with them. 

As well as virtual and extended reality, this includes artificial intelligence (AI) - especially generative AI tools like ChatGPT, which have dominated the headlines recently.

What is generative AI?

Generative AI refers to a type of AI that can create new content such as text, images or media based on existing data. Most generative AI tools use models that are trained using vast amounts of data from the internet and other, unspecified, sources.  

Despite all the media hype, ChatGPT is not the only one out there: there are multiple examples of tools using this type of technology, and it’s already integrated into our daily work processes through Google, Microsoft Bing and other widely used apps.

This means banning the use of generative AI tools in education is simply not an option. 

While the rapid emergence and the huge implications of this technology may appear daunting, the key thing is not to panic, but to embrace the opportunities while understanding the challenges.

Be aware of the myths 

When something evolves at such a rate as generative AI, there are bound to be areas that are unknown or misunderstood. It’s therefore important to be aware of the truth – or otherwise – of some of the myths that currently surround these tools.

Firstly, generative AI tools like ChatGPT do not know everything. Some, including the basic version of ChatGPT, have no access to external data such as the internet, and so can only draw upon the material on which they were trained. In the case of ChatGPT, this was a cut-off date of September 2021. Newer versions now include this capability, but users need to pay for it.

Another common misperception is that AI can understand the question being asked and the answer it produces. The reality is that these tools simply use their pre-training to predict the most likely next word in a given sequence. This can result in inaccuracies and highly plausible untruths, so any output requires rigorous checking.

Understand the threats 

Without greater understanding of how generative AI works and what it can (and can’t) do, there is a risk that educators and learners alike may be using tools that are not fit for purpose, or not using them to their best advantage. 

When it comes to the issue of plagiarism, for example, relying on AI detection tools won’t solve the problem. These are being developed almost as quickly as the technology is evolving, but they are not foolproof, and no system today can conclusively prove that text has been written by AI. Those placing all their eggs in the AI detection tool basket run the risk of missing instances of AI-generated content or falsely accusing students of cheating.

And, as the creators of generative AI tools work out how to monetise them, the threat of increased digital inequality looms. ChatGPT is free (for now) but its successor ChatGPT Plus, based on the more advanced GPT-4 LLM (large language model), is not. Nor, obviously, are any of the more focused tools which are coming onto the market. 

This could widen the digital divide if some learners are unable to afford to access the same AI capabilities as their peers. 

Embrace the opportunities 

AI undeniably has great potential to alleviate one of the greatest challenges currently faced by FE staff: the ever-increasing workload. 

For example, AI-based tools like TeacherMatic which are specifically designed for use in education really can make teachers’ lives easier. By completing routine tasks such as lesson planning, schemes of work and resource creation in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take, they allow teachers to prioritise education over admin and help them to be more effective in the classroom. 

Equipping staff with a clear basic understanding of how these tools work and giving them the time and training to experiment for themselves can help lessen the load and boost creativity. 

The way forward 

As these tools proliferate and regulation for ethical development and usage is enacted, the opportunities to harness generative AI to improve teaching and learning will only increase. 

It’s clear that the key to successful use of AI tools in further education is improving the knowledge of generative AI for both staff and learners. 

Not all colleges are at the same level of understanding when it comes to generative AI, but organisations such as Jisc can help bridge that knowledge gap to upskill staff and limit the risk of learners being left behind.

Further Information

Angela Pink, Senior Media and Content Officer

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