Where exactly are we with AI in higher education?
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Where exactly are we with AI in higher education?

Where exactly are we with AI in higher education?

If 2019 could be defined by one term, it would be artificial intelligence. By 2030, AI is projected to contribute around US$15.7 trillion to the global economy, equal to the total output of China and India combined according to a recent PWC report.

The Global Artificial Intelligence Study further estimates that 3 percent of jobs are at risk of automation by 2020, while 30 percent of jobs could be at risk of automation come 2035. With 40 percent of workers with ‘low education’ at risk of automation further down the line.

Furthermore, productivity gains from companies automating processes and augmenting their human workforce for the creation and production of AI- enhanced products is generating a sizeable demand for an entirely new skillset.

The world’s first AI university

In October, Abu Dhabi launched the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) – the first graduate level, research-based AI university in the world.

MBZUAI is the first university in the world focused solely on AI and reportedly saw more than 3,200 students apply to its school in the first week of admissions opening. The institution stated that it had received a large number of applicants from Saudi Arabia, India, China and Egypt to commence study in September 2020.

The university will offer MSc and PhD-level programmes in key areas of AI, including machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing. It will also provide support to PhD students in partnership with the Abu Dhabi-based Institute of Artificial Intelligence and claims to give students access to some of the most advanced AI systems. Internships will be provided in collaboration with local and global companies to ensure students secure relevant employment.

Countries leading in AI

The UAE is not the only region making strides in AI-related education. “Looking around the world, one can easily observe how different countries are getting prepared. For example, in Singapore, where the school education system is admired the world over, there is considerable reform in preparation for AI and the 4IR. Singapore also has an excellent technical infrastructure and the government has set aside US$150 million for a five-year national programme called AI Singapore to enhance its capabilities in AI,” says Professor Rose Luckin of Learned Centred Design at the UCL Knowledge Lab and Director of EDUCATE.

“Other countries that are doing interesting things include Estonia, where business is being tasked with increasing its understanding and general awareness of AI as well as its R&D efforts and its general level of digitisation. Estonia also has a vibrant start-up culture, so there is hope that AI thinking will be part of the mind-set of companies from the early stages of their development. On the education policy front, the Estonian Education and Research Strategy 2021–2035 was published earlier this year. This strategy advocates a significant transformation to their education system. Learning environments are to be built that combine school, vocational, cultural and adult education and workplaces,” adds Luckin.

This month, Estonian World also reported that Estonia will be joining a Finnish-led initiative with an official target to educate 1 percent of its population in AI, the driving force of that being Tallinn University of Technology, which now provides an online course called The Elements of AI. The very same course was originally launched at the University of Helsinki and witnessed over 90,000 student enrolments from 80 different countries in the first four months, states the Finnish institution. Over in the UK, Anglia Ruskin University has launched four new degree courses this year to close the AI skills gap.

Artificial-intelligence-robot-Alex-Knight-on-Unsplash-1024x683

Estonia will be joining a Finnish-led initiative with an official target to educate 1 percent of its population in AI. Source: Unsplash/Alex Knight

China is also making headway, investing billions of yuan in technical infrastructure including AI, notes Luckin.

“China has a university sector which is investing significantly in strengthening basic AI knowledge and boosting research and innovation. China has also been reforming its education system for a number of years now with a particular focus on creating an assessment system for national basic educational quality through the Collaborative Innovation Centre of Basic Educational Quality research at Beijing Normal University.”

A further encouraging sign can be seen in the way that some of the new AI in education companies are working with educators and the research community, comments Luckin. “For example, Squirrel AI has formed a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University and researchers from this institution are working with the team to ensure that both their technology and their pedagogy is advanced, appropriate and well-designed. This is encouraging to see and will be complemented greatly as more educators are brought into the AI system design process.”

Currently, the US still offers the most varied options when it comes to studying AI at this level. Top universities for AI include Stanford, Harvard and MIT – which caters to undergraduates but also professionals looking to upskill with the MIT Professional Certificate Program in Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence.

With the subject being a relatively new area of study at degree level, some education experts have voiced concerns that students must be educated on what to expect from a degree in AI. Competition for places could also be an issue as institutions and teachers race to gain expertise in the subject.

What to expect from an AI degree

International education consultant and author Joe Nutt, who also works for a range of technology companies, explains some misconceptions around AI and the realities of studying for an AI degree:

“The most important thing for students is to recognise that the term ‘AI’ is being widely and unhelpfully used as a marketing term and all people are really talking about is advanced computing. In fact, many computing experts are beginning to challenge the use of the term themselves and prefer people to talk about machine learning.”

Given that anyone studying in this field is likely to end up in business, it’s also vital that any university course includes ethics, shares Nutt.

“That in itself is an entirely new field, with few credible experts. I also would expect any university to be linking the technical elements of any AI course closely to the real world. My advice to anyone thinking of studying it at university would be, if you think there is something exciting, innovative or even sexy about AI, studying it probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy battling with mathematical and logical conundrums, or have a passion for technology and can combine that with a concern for how any new tech impacts real people – then you are likely to be the perfect candidate,” concludes Nutt.

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