Digifest 2023 – Birmingham

This week 3 members of Digital Learning, Roo Pescod, Dave Pollard and Robert Stillwell headed to Birmingham to attend the 2023 JISC Digifest conference.

This year AI is was a prominent theme given the recent hype surrounding chatGPT and the concerns about it’s potential to have significant impact both positively and negatively. There has been a recent scramble around the sector to improve tools that detect plagiarism in order to mitigate an anticipated increase in use of AI created content within assessment submissions.

Digifest main stage before the first keynote began.

The keynote on day 1 was an inspiring talk by Inma Martinez who is a leading authority in the fields of digital technology and machine intelligence actively working as an advisor to business and government internationally. She confidently demonstrated the breadth of her knowledge and expertise through her talk.

There is understandably a lot of anxiety about the potential impacts of AI within both society along with our field of education. Martinez began by discussing the way chatGPT had been irresponsibly unleashed online bypassing all the usual ethical rules of AI testing. In her opinion this was done intentionally by silicon valley to create hype around AI technologies which it certainly has succeeded in doing. She highlighted a number of the issues around chatGPT including the fact it was It was an unfinished system and contained significant bias.

Martinez then continued with a more positive reminder of the fundamentals of what AI can offer and why it could have such significant positive impacts for humanity – namely it’s ability to identify patterns within huge data sets, something well beyond human capability. Then followed a reminder about what AI’s weakness and why humans partnering with AI systems is key – tacit knowledge, situation knowledge and experience.

The talk then moved into a discussion about the potential opportunities that AI could afford education. Utilising it’s strength in identify patterns through large data sets it was highlighted that AI could be used to identify not only struggling students but help support them in their areas of weakness in ways that suit their individual needs or preferences. Of course in order for this to be possible requires much progress to be made in terms of learning analytics and data quality.

Digifest conference main hall

As a team, a significant part of our remit in Digital Learning at Falmouth is online course development. This is another area that AI could have implications for – identifying areas of courses that could be improved and making suggestions for those improvements. AI also offers the potential to create smart content to optimise the way you teach and how students are learning. It could be possible for every student to have content delivered to them in a personalised construct and format that suits their preferences and level – likely based on previous analysis of optimal methods based on performance of outcomes.

Another area of discussion in a few sessions was how do we address the subject of AI generated assignments. Fear of technological developments is certainly nothing new.  It questioned the importance for retention of information vs the ability to locate and critique information and use it in a meaningful way – e.g. does the recall of information make a doctor effective vs what you do with it and the importance human soft skills and instincts. Universities in general have very rigid structures and processes designed to efficiently process essay submission. It is one of the most time and cost efficient ways of assessing but likely for many students not the most effective or fairest way of measuring knowledge attained and comprehension. There could be a need for these was of assessing to change radically should we choose to not accept and embrace AI content generation.

Great urban lighting in Birmingham

In a panel session I attended there was talk of using AI to create a starting point- for example, in creative writing. Rather than dealing with a blank page, having something you could then modify or build upon could really help some students or even practitioners in general. A key skill going forward will be the ability to critique content created by AI rather than simply trusting it as a truth.

Another very important point made in a few talks including the keynote by Martinez was in importance of digital access and inclusion. It’s vital people aren’t left behind with these rapidly technological developments.

One thing that was also made clear particularly in the session with Martinez was the increasing importance of creative thinking. This feels particularly pertinent at Falmouth and I feel our values of being creative, connected and courageous are as relevant as ever.

Another take away from the conference for me was the excellent session I attended by Lev Gonick, chief information officer, Arizona State University. They are doing some fascinating work looking to impact their community and improve access to learning but whilst there are clearly significant differences between such a huge US university and Falmouth. It was interesting to hear about how they had flattened much of their hierachy in order to be able to work in a much more agile way to respond to challenges and innovate more effectively.

Reflections upon arrival at Birmingham Central

However, I felt a key message was the importance of being willing to take risks in order to innovate. I feel these don’t always need to be at large financial expense either, small interventions for example using existing tools in original ways have the potential to deliver positive impacts. ASU have been incorporating AI within their curriculum for a few years now but it was interesting Gonick highlighted use of AI within creative writing specifically.

It is easy to forget that AI features are already widely in use across the education sector. For example in institutions using Office365, (a few I’m sure), Microsoft Word has a number of AI enhancements already built in. In one of the panel conversations I attended it was pointed out that students could be in a position later this year where our own institutional tools could cause students to create work that is in breach of our own assessment policies. Clearly we need to react to these developments quickly.

The second day of Digifest coincided with International Womens Day and featured a fantastic keynote by Prof Sue Black. An emotional and inspiring journey through her life and career demonstrating the importance of supporting women in developing their digital skills and confidence and huge impact that can have on future generations through her #techmums social enterprise. This also led me to reflect on the many talented women we have within our Digital Learning Team and the invaluable part they play in our team culture and the work we deliver.

Birmingham Library

Regarding inclusion, during our short stay in Birmingham, Dave, Roo and I visited the Birmingham Central Library (apparently one of the largest libraries in the world) – an inspiring place open to all at no cost. Described as a “people’s palace” by it’s architect it is highly accessible with everything within to help change peoples lives.

This my first conference attendance since joining the team at Falmouth and felt proud of what we are looking to build here. Whilst the is always a lot that can be improved, I feel that we have much of the right ambition, skills, strategy and people to really aspire to innovate and create meaningful, effective and inclusive blended and online learning.

My key take aways were in summary

  • Rather than fear tech developments such as AI, think creatively about how you can include them in your teaching / assessment
  • AI will likely deliver real world tools that our students will need to be able to understand and utilise these technologies in their professional careers – we should be preparing them for this.
  • AI has the potential to improve access to content and how we create and deliver online learning along with identifying and supporting struggling students.
  • Accessibility, equality and inclusion are more important than ever to ensure we don’t end up with divided and disempowered sections of society.
  • Taking risks and being innovative will lead to huge changes and potential improvements in how we use technology in education
  • Large organisations could increase their agility and abilities to handle change through flattening hierarchy and encouraging collaboration