Artificial intelligence will change higher education

The image we have of job losses caused by technological advances is anchored in the popular cliché of the Luddite revolt in the weaving industry. So it is not surprising that most of our thinking about the impact of artificial intelligence systems, including robots, seems to focus on the idea of job displacement, primarily in the manufacturing and trade sectors.

For the most part, the ‘professions’ are seen as largely immune from such disruptions and dislocations and the idea that they might be disrupted is often dismissed because it is argued that the professions are dependent on highly personal, highly individual demands.

Yet almost all professions, including education, have been significantly affected as a result of the explosion of the knowledge economy even prior to the rise of the Internet and artificial intelligence.

As the accumulation of specialised knowledge has accelerated, the world has seen an increase in specialisation and sub-specialisation as it has become increasingly difficult for individuals to master one area, much less track peripheral, interdisciplinary subjects.

This proliferation of knowledge, the ability to sort, analyse and even transmit constructed materials, is exactly what artificial intelligence can address.

The fragmentation of knowledge has seen the development of specialists in these sub-domains. Medicine is a paradigmatic example with the rise of nurse practitioners who, today, are even licensed to practise surgery.

Academia is no exception if one examines the websites and catalogues of courses and areas of faculty specialisation in all disciplines, from the humanities and social sciences to STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

I consider ‘professionals’ in post-secondary education, like other professionals, as providers and deliverers of knowledge, with teaching as the primary value proposition, distinguished from research. As artificial intelligence’s capabilities have expanded, it has been able to gather critical resources and assemble them into a well-focused package of knowledge for delivery direct to individual learners.

Customised knowledge

The combination of access to and use of ‘Big Data’, coupled with the ability to target specific areas of knowledge, allows for customisation at the speed and level required in the modern world.

This is in keeping with the increasing use of ‘personalised’ learning teaching models, competency-based education and a host of other emergent approaches. It fits our growing understanding that ‘lock-step/age defined’ cohorts of learners will not carry one through to graduation and work.

Equally importantly, education will need to be flexible, whether in a four-year institution, a graduate programme, a technical/vocational programme or one that provides certificates of professional achievement.

Recent studies appear to show that the demand for individuals to be able to control their education path through selectively accessing knowledge is growing, even in semi-automated systems such as Khan Academy and massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

In fact, in one year there have been more registrations for Harvard MOOCs than for all previous courses at the institution. Khan Academy, YouTube and other educational sites have multiple courses, quizzes and similar vehicles for knowledge acquisition.

Unlike the case of technology within the manufacturing sector that led to significant job loss and-or displacement, the impact of artificial intelligence within the professional service sector may prove to be substantially different and uneven.

Gradually, those seeking knowledge are determining more of their own paths. The use of the Internet is connecting such knowledge globally and much of that knowledge is now escaping the confines of academic institutions, changing the role of the institutions and professional faculty’s responsibilities and vehicles for providing knowledge.

In other words, the form and function of the university is changing rather than being replaced by artificial intelligence, which in turn alters the professional practice of providing knowledge.

Changing skill sets

This changes the balance of skill sets needed by faculty members in the same way as it changes those needed by individuals outside the academy. There is a growing understanding that outside the walls of the Ivory Tower professionals will need more higher-level credentials.

As the world becomes more Internet-connected, we will see the rapid deployment of custom knowledge delivery systems with a global impact on the work of academic professionals. This impact has yet to be understood by various political entities whose focus has been on cloning a model that is in the process of change. In other words, artificial intelligence’s ability to deliver multilingual, multicultural skills will change post-secondary education globally.

Until now, universities have had faculty functioning in dual roles, as teachers and researchers. While the introduction of artificial intelligence, or AI, and rapid connectivity with the Internet does not necessarily result in the reduction or elimination of professional positions, it will bring change in what academics do.

Teaching roles, as we are now seeing, will move to a more blended model of competency-based programmes, resulting in the current split between tenure-track faculty and adjuncts.

Thus, the increasingly demand-driven needs of ‘students’ will be met by a scaffold of AI, adjuncts and senior faculty. The current model where ‘teaching’ allowed universities to underwrite research faculty who were not supported by external funds will significantly atrophy and new models will need to emerge.

Similarly, many of the hand-crafted research programmes that are a combination of ‘bench’ science/technology and theory will need to take into account the rise of Internet-based cloud sourcing and AI. This change will not occur overnight, but will evolve gradually.

Fungible knowledge

This will influence current efforts in developing countries, in Africa in particular, because they have made major efforts to improve and raise the status of their universities by pursuing the model of traditional Western-based institutions. In today’s emergent “Internet of Things”, knowledge is increasingly fungible and transferable across geo/political boundaries.

Unlike the technical revolution that gave rise to job-loss in the trade and crafts world, the evolution of the Internet and artificial intelligence will have an impact on higher education institutions, bringing changes in functions at all levels, from knowledge delivery to research/development.

Universities have already seen this happening incrementally with shifts in faculty and administrative functions, but have been able to avoid confronting the need for change head on. The difference now is that the need for transformation is present at all levels, within and outside of institutions, and universities will have to address what can no longer be avoided.

Dr Tom P Abeles is president of Sagacity, Inc. Email: