Possibilities and Limits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Higher Ed

John Meyer July 16, 2019
Artificial intelligence is here to stay. It’s having a profound impact on education, and that impact will almost certainly expand over time.  Is this a positive direction for students and teachers, or is it a slippery slope away from engaged, thoughtful learning? Different stakeholders have very different points of view on this subject, and for good reason. Like any tool, AI has its limits—but it can also provide an impressive array of tools for teaching and learning.
What Is AI in Education?
Unlike typical computer programs which can only do what they are programmed to do, artificial intelligence can learn through its interactions—much as people learn.  In education, AI can be used to create innovative learning environments, take on repetitive teacher tasks, support struggling learners, offer opportunities for risk-free trial-and-error learning, assess student learning, and much more.
Will AI replace human educators? The answer to this important question is no.
While AI can easily present a lecture and then test students on their recall through multiple choice or “fill in the blank” tests, AI is not a replacement for teacher-led discussion or experimentation. However, AI can offer an array of teaching tools and resources ranging from individualized review, drilling, assessment, to in-depth exploration of topics. However, according to an article by the University of Sussex in the UK: “it seems very unlikely that AI will replace human educators. A 2017 report predicts only 8.5% of educational jobs in the UK are considered at high risk of automation over the coming years.”
Which Areas of Higher Education Will Be Impacted By AI?
In the immediate future, AI and other digital tools are most likely to be used to customize, support, and expand learning and assessment. Often, AI can be deployed to do things that professors either can’t or prefer not to do. For example:
  • Provide customized personal support, drills, and tutorials to students who are struggling with particular concepts or skills
  • Grade quizzes and tests that require predictable responses (multiple choice, short answer, drag and drop)
  • Review essays to identify plagiarism
  • Offer opportunities to experiment with different solutions to problems in math, science, and engineering in a judgement-free environment
  • Support the research process by recommending potential sources and/or citations
In the long run, AI may go much further. Already, EdTech researchers are experimenting with education in virtual environments, using AI to review and grade entire essays, and using AI to help students collaborate and communicate in large groups across large distances. Time will tell to what degree these types of learning tools will catch on and to what degree in-person, small-group, real-world experiences will continue to be a major focus of higher education.
The Bottom Line
As with any technology, AI has its strengths and weaknesses. There is no doubt that AI is here to stay. It will continue providing increasingly personalized learning tools—and, by offering certain types of learning experiences, it will challenge human teachers to go beyond the basics. In the long run, however, AI will never have the ability to reproduce true human collaboration, interaction, and discovery.
Marr, Bernard. How is AI used in education — real world examples of today and a peek into the future. Forbes, Jul 25, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/07/25/how-is-ai-used-in-education-real-world-examples-of-today-and-a-peek-into-the-future/#65ac11df586e Robinson, George. AI and the future of higher education. University of Sussex, August 15, 2017.  http://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/tel/2017/08/15/ai-future-higher-education/

John Meyer

As Director of Solutions, John Meyer is responsible for defining and documenting Solutions for Magic EdTech customers in the areas of content services, technology services, and the MagicBox digital learning platform.