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Starting the conversation about AI and governance

04 Apr 2024 | Nina Langlie Ahead of our online 'HE Governance and Artificial Intelligence (AI)' event for our members, Nina Langlie, Strategic Consultancy Manager, shares her thoughts about this quickly evolving area and the importance of leadership during times of change.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next big disruptor to businesses, and we’re beginning to see the deep effects it will have on higher education, for instance in administration, teaching, assessment, and student support. As with any fast-evolving technology, AI might seem difficult to understand, but it is a vital topic for strategic leaders to consider and even embrace. As institutions work to understand the opportunities and possible pitfalls in this area, Advance HE will bring together strategic leaders and governors to talk about AI’s implications for their institutions.

Possible benefits of AI in higher education  

AI allows stakeholders from across an institution to access insights from data that is aggregated and analysed in real time. Lecturers, researchers, and administrative staff can see and share trends about student engagement, outcomes and needs at the same time as the senior leadership team.  

When thoughtfully utilised, this power helps senior leaders take evidence-based decisions about students’ needs and market changes with more agility. AI-generated reports and dashboards can enable institutions to demonstrate student outcomes and identify underperforming courses and struggling students to allow for proactive interventions.  

Generative AI, and large language models in particular, could help close achievement gaps and improve student outcomes by providing personalised tutoring for every student. Rather than giving answers to learners, AI can be programmed to guide students to their own conclusions through coaching, questioning and collaboration. On the teaching side, AI can support lecturers in creating interesting lesson plans, consistently assessing students’ work, and tailoring and tracking engagement with online learning. Streamlining time-consuming work could free up staff time that might be repurposed for research, meaningful student engagement and collaboration with colleagues. With proper oversight, AI could potentially provide an initial touchpoint for students around pastoral care, though this area would require further assurance and evaluation around efficacy and effective practices.  

The ability to quickly understand large amounts of data provides institutions with insights about equality, diversity, and inclusion amongst students and staff. These details can help leaders pinpoint areas of concern, such as low admission rates for students from diverse backgrounds or gender equality within academic areas, early and plan targeted interventions. Institutions with effective processes in place to manage AI-generated insights may benefit from operational efficiencies, quicker, more accurate decision-making, and flatter, more egalitarian management structures.   

Possible risks of AI in higher education 

On the other hand, AI presents very real risks and challenges for educational institutions. One of the main concerns is that students could create assignments generated by AI rather than reflecting their own ideas, intelligence, and creativity. This may require an extension of the institutions’ academic integrity policies and monitoring could be enhanced by already existing tools such as Turnitit and Scribbr.  

Another overarching risk of AI is that it could embed and amplify bias within discourse and datasets. Humans are likely to inadvertently programme cognitive biases into AI coding and algorithms, which could disadvantage certain groups and individuals and serve to entrench new or existing inequalities within society. This may be linked to a lack of diversity representation in the wider tech industry, which is another area that HEIs could help to address.  

As AI relies on human inputs, institutions must be aware of the limitations of their systems and ensure data is consistent and high quality. Many colleges and universities struggle with data reliability, which undermines trust and confidence in data accuracy. This highlights the importance of the human-AI interface and the need for people to have higher data literacy and the tools to critically examine the information processed and produced by AI algorithms.    

Finally, like all web-based technologies, AI is prone to hazards around cybersecurity, hacking, and other malicious attacks that can put all types of data at risk. Institutions must be vigilant and continuously monitor threats to institutional, departmental, and personal data and IP.    

The role of governance 

Overseeing robust risk assessments specific to AI and technology across the institution is generally included in the remit of the Audit and Risk Committee, and there are risk register templates available online to guide the discussion. The Board should continuously monitor government and sector guidance and regulations as AI becomes commonplace. Likewise, policies and procedures around the use of AI within learning, teaching and assessment, should be in place and reviewed regularly as part of academic governance and assurance.  

As AI has will have wide impacts across institutions, Board members and senior leaders should assess their skills and knowledge in this area and support their staff and students to increase data literacy and critical thinking at all levels.   

Although it is tempting to focus solely on managing the risks around AI, governance is also about horizon scanning, embracing opportunities, and supporting change. Strategic leaders in higher education should join the discussion about the potential of AI to transform education, improve student outcomes, support decision making, and create efficiencies within institutions. The ability to understand these opportunities and envision, lead, and communicate new ways of working may be the key to the success for universities and colleges going forward.   

Join our upcoming HE Governance and AI event 14 May 2024 (virtual)

If you would like to explore these issues in more depth with other governors and senior leaders, please join our online event 14 May 12:30-14:00 BST. Book your place here.

Nina Langlie is the Strategic Consultancy Manager with the Consulting and Governance team at Advance HE. The team manages the Governor Development Programme and provides consulting services around governance and strategic change to institutions in the UK and internationally. Nina is particularly interested in internationalisation, applied learning, technology and governance.


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