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UNESCO survey shows 90% of schools, universities have no formal guidance on AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere but many schools and universities are unprepared to deal.
AI in Education
AI in Education Credit: Computerteam Ltd
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About 90 per cent of the more than 450 schools and universities that participated in a recent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) global survey on the deployment of generative artificial intelligence (AI) applications have no institutional rules and/or formal guidance.

The survey was prepared for the Ministerial Roundtable on Generative AI and Education, organised by UNESCO on 25 May 2023. The outcome highlights the challenges in addressing the sudden rise of new, potent generative AI applications that may generate human-like output, such as summaries, essays, letters, computer programmes, and more. The currently available technology is also capable of excelling on the most important standardised tests, such as university admission exams and tests used to certify professionals like doctors and lawyers.

The absence of any sort of direction demonstrates the efforts being made by educational systems to keep up with emerging technologies.

Before becoming enshrined at local governments, state, and/or national levels, policies controlling the educational use and abuse of emerging digital tools frequently take shape at the institutional level. The survey by UNESCO only uncovered a small number of institutional-level regulations, which suggests that educational systems are still figuring out how to strike a balance and consider their options. It will probably take a lot longer to develop and implement rules that are more system-wide and apply to numerous schools and institutions in both national and sub-national contexts.

“The survey results show that we are still very much in the wilderness when it comes to newly powerful generative AI and education,” said Sobhi Tawil, the UNESCO Director for the Future of Learning and Innovation. “Institutions are not yet providing guidance or direction.”

Read also: Digital education for the future of work: Preparing students for the 21st-century job market

Fastest spreading digital application of all time

Students and teachers aren’t waiting around while it seems like colleges and universities are taking their time to formulate policies and recommendations. In many ways, ChatGPT—which is reported to have more than 100 million users worldwide and is outpacing the social media platforms Instagram, Snapchat, and others in their rapid expansion—is the fastest-growing digital programme in history.

“Without institutional guidance of any sort, these technologies are likely to get welded into education systems in unplanned ways with uncertain implications and possible unintended consequences. Ideally, there will be serious reflection about their place and role, and then action to realize this vision. We cannot simply ignore the short- and medium-term implications of these technologies for safety, knowledge diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Tawil.

To help students and instructors better grasp these technologies and the ramifications of their use, UNESCO has been pushing schools and universities to take the initiative to offer guidance.

“Educational institutions need an agile and iterative approach, or they will forever be trying to catch up with the relentless pace of technological innovation,” said Tawil.

More universities than schools have guidance

About half of the educational institutions who stated having a policy stated that the policy gives “pointed guidance,” which means that the institution has specific guidelines and rules surrounding the educational applications of generative AI. The other half of respondents claimed that the school “gives discretion to users,” i.e., has primarily left it up to individual departments, classes, and professors to determine whether and how to utilise generative AI applications.

Only two of the thousands of organisations that took part in the poll said they had policies or instructions that constituted “a ban” and forbade the use of generative AI tools like ChatGPT entirely or largely.

The ad hoc character of policy responses in education is further demonstrated by the fact that 40 per cent of educational institutions that reported having guidance claimed that the guidance was not written and had only been given orally.

Institutional policies or guidelines were substantially more prevalent at universities than at schools. Only 7 per cent of schools reported having any guidance, compared to about 13 per cent of universities.

The fact that over 20 per cent of survey participants said they were unaware whether their particular organisation had policies or guidelines regarding generative AI is also telling. This significant percentage reflects the existing regulatory vacuum and uncertainty surrounding these novel technologies.

UNESCO’s guidance on AI and education

Over the past few years, UNESCO has assisted educational institutions and nations in the educational use of AI in humanistic directions that promote inclusion, equity, diversity, and excellence. The UNESCO Recommendation on the Ethics of AI from 2021 offers overarching principles to support sector- and nation-specific laws.

The 2019 Beijing Consensus on AI and Education and the articles in the I’d Blush if I Could publication discuss some of the special cultural and educational effects of talking chatbots and other AI technology. Furthermore, the 2021 book AI and Education: Guidance for Policy-Makers provides insightful policy recommendations.

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