AI can help HE, but guidelines for ethical usage are needed

Higher education institutions should be prepared to adopt, absorb and utilise artificial intelligence (AI). This is according to Rwanda’s Minister of Education, Dr Valentine Uwamariya, who spoke during the 14th Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) Annual Conference and Meeting in Kigali that ended on 28 June.

Organised by IUCEA, the two-day meeting was themed ‘The Future of Higher Education in the Age of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence’ and attended by higher education experts and officials from the council’s member countries, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

It sought to explore the potential of data science, with attention to data-driven decision-making and AI in higher education and to discuss the challenges and opportunities for higher education institutions and stakeholders.

Speaking during the meeting, Uwamariya said that the conference came at a time when there is a growing demand in higher education to rethink the future of the sector in the region and globally.

“Technological advancements mainly ushered in by the Fourth Industrial Revolution have rendered several academic theories obsolete. It is important that academia quickly work out strategies to remain relevant and ensure that learning is enjoyable,” she said.

She noted that the higher education sector is currently dealing with learners who are well-exposed to IT and AI and who have transitioned from transformative learning pedagogies to competence-based learning.

“The future of higher education is bright if we are prepared for these new emerging trends. We need to evolve, learn and unlearn for us to succeed. The universities that do not move in tandem with the pace of growth of IT and new developments in AI will be considered as universities of yesterday,” she said.

“I, therefore, challenge us here to think and rethink our approaches to teaching, the innovativeness of our universities, our research capacities and our approaches to handling [a] new calibre of learners,” the minister urged participants.

Progress in the region

The realities of virtual learning, transformative education, the drive towards competence-based education, advances in technology and the new trend towards home learning are facing higher education.

“We should, therefore, be responsive to these realities,” Uwamariya challenged. “The advancements in AI and data science have brought about a paradigm shift in how we educate our youth and the skills and knowledge required to succeed in the 21st century,” Uwamariya added.

The minister noted that, in the past, the East African community had made significant progress in expanding access to higher education.

She pointed out that many countries in the region have launched ambitious higher education initiatives to increase enrolment, improve the quality and relevance of education, and promote research and innovation.

These initiatives, she said, have led to the establishment of higher education centres of excellence, new universities, the expansion of existing institutions, and the development of new programmes and courses.

Such courses include devising new modes of delivery of academic programmes, such as distance and online and blended learning, using diverse digital learning platforms.

“Increasingly, there is a growing concern about the future of higher education and its currently offered training programmes globally in the face of growing technological advancements,” she said.

She said that the new technologies offer great promises on the one hand, noting that the higher education landscape is rapidly evolving due to the influence of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and data-driven decision-making.

“The use of artificial intelligence and data science tools can improve efficiency, effectiveness and informed decision-making across all aspects of higher education, from student learning and retention to financial management and institutional planning,” she added.

More personalised learning

The minister said that embracing IT and AI could bring about benefits for students, such as personalised learning and tutoring outside the classroom, increased accessibility to high-quality education and rapid responses to generic and repetitive questions, among others.

At the same time, Uwamariya said, AI could personalise students’ learning, allowing instructors to personalise lessons and improve their scientific research.

“We cannot discount the role of IT and, more so, AI. Today, predictions and simulations are all a product of AI,” she said.

“We should, therefore, invest in IT and ensure that our population is prepared to embrace it. We need to be deliberate in that undertaking by ensuring we create an enabling environment for information technology and digital globalisation.”

Need for more partnership

Uwamariya said that the East African region was still grappling with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, stressing that, elsewhere, academic peers have already moved ahead and are at an advanced stage.

She challenged the heads of universities and academia to forge partnerships when they adopt AI and data science.

“The adoption of artificial intelligence and data science inevitably require close partnership and collaboration with the private sector, the industry and the world of work,” she said.

“Experiences within the EAC region have already demonstrated that, when industry and academia come together, they can produce innovative products that solve real-world problems,” she added.

Education experts, however, warned that, while it is crucial for universities and higher learning institutions to embrace AI and adopt it in learning and teaching processes, it comes at a huge cost.

Professor Callixte Kabera, the vice-chancellor of the private East African University Rwanda and the president of Rwanda’s Private Universities Association, said institutions should, therefore, devise ways they can invest in AI. Not doing so, he added, could have a negative impact.

“Lagging behind is not accepted, whether you are ready or not. Some universities are already advanced in embracing AI and others are trailing. It is time that every university and every higher learning institution started to rethink the future of education and ensure they are fully engaged to embrace AI,” he said.

“Of course, it comes at a cost. There is a need for financial investment in IT infrastructure development and in the capacity-building of resources – all that will lead us to embrace and adopt AI. Those who won’t do so will lag behind,” said Kabera, who is also the chairperson of the Inter-University Council for East Africa.

Education experts also called for the establishment of policies and laws that ensure responsible and ethical use of AI technology to ensure that universities harness the benefits of AI while mitigating potential risks.

The council brings together 145 higher education institutions in the region.