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Does artificial intelligence pose a threat to learning and teaching? Heli Harrikari argues that AI should be seen as part of broader, fast accelerating digitalisation of higher education and can provide enormous opportunities when we learn to use it properly.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one digital tool, among many others. It is perhaps cleverer than most, but it is a tool after all. The key question is how to best use AI for learning and teaching, to support our pedagogical goals and processes. AI will most likely force us to rethink and redesign our ways of learning and teaching, perhaps even at the most fundamental level. However, after the initial effort, the benefits may be substantial.

Personalised skills and competence analysis are a good example of the opportunities AI presents in education. Here, “skills and competences” should be understood broadly, including, for example, transversal skills. Tools where algorithms retrieve information from data related to individual’s learning history already exist. This data could be course information, but also any other relevant data, such as a CV or information about informal learning. From the analysis, the learner gains an initial understanding of their skills and competences.

However, the technology-based approach is only the first step. It is equally important to understand how to make the best out of the information provided by AI. It is thus essential to connect the information provided by AI to a personalised user-friendly guidance process that incorporates human reflection.

One might ask, what is the ultimate value of all this for learners? Through an AI-based analysis, complemented with human reflection, each of us can more clearly understand our personal skills and competences. Consequently, putting one’s own skills and competences into words also becomes easier, which is truly beneficial for all of us in a society where continuous learning has become part of our everyday life and learning opportunities are global and vast. It is good to know where one stands at a given moment in order to make rational decisions about developing future skills and competences.

Until now, in developing curricula in higher education we, as course developers, have assumed that the learning outcomes of our courses reliably describe what individual learners accomplish. However, in reality the course level learning outcomes do not talk much about the actual skills and competences of an individual. Furthermore, the overall picture of an individual learner’s skills and competence has long remained obscure.

In addition, the AI-based approach is able to take into account the fact that skills and competences can also be developed outside of classrooms. In principle, this can happen anywhere, anytime and in any way. In other words, by just listing completed degrees and courses, quite little can be said about real skills and competences. This is increasingly also the message coming from the labour market.

The case of AI is a prime example of how technology can be combined with human work in an optimal way. AI does not remove the need for the human touch. Rather, it helps us to reallocate the declining number of human resources in higher education into the contexts where they are most valuable, leaving the rest to technology and automation.

AI as such is not good or bad, but it is rather up to us human beings whether it turns into a threat or an opportunity. I personally hope that we are only in the beginning of understanding the opportunities of AI for education, as it means that the future is full of opportunities. Most likely it will require quite an effort from us in HE to learn to make the best out of AI, but it is also difficult to imagine how we in HE could close our eyes from the developments happening cross-cuttingly right now in the society around us. It is more constructive to be part of the change and make the future instead of building fences.

Note: This article is based on the author’s contribution to a session on “Talking to bots and avatars: Are high-tech campuses the future?” at the 2023 European Learning & Teaching Forum.


Heli Harrikari
European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU University)

Heli Harrikari is Strategic Lead of the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU University). She has extensive experience in strategic innovation in universities. Previously, she served as Director of Continuous Learning, Vice-President and Dean at Tampere University of Technology. In industry, she has worked in research concerning speech and language technology.

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