Viewpoint: Europe needs to plot its own course in applying artificial intelligence to education

30 Jan 2024 | Viewpoint

COVID-19 put technology-assisted learning at the centre of education. Now AI is driving the revolution further. This promises significant benefits, but it is essential to take a nuanced approach to the risks and benefits of the use of these new tools 

Martin Vende, academy director at EIT Urban Mobility, speaking at the EIT EdTech Conference this January. Photo: EIT Urban Mobility

The ever-growing influence of artificial intelligence (AI) tools in education is raising crucial questions about the risks and benefits for higher education. As Europe navigates this technology landscape, it is now imperative to consider how these new tools are deployed and not to go with the herd and imitate the rest of the world.

In higher education the adoption of AI tools has been shown to have transformative potential, especially in the field of educational technology (EdTech). From personalised learning experiences to accommodating diverse learning styles, EdTech has paved the way to 24/7 access to coursework, allowing students to engage in learning at their convenience. Automated grading, classroom management tools, and tools like ChatGPT have been adopted and are revolutionising education processes.

But realising the potential - whilst preventing misuse of these emerging technologies - is a critical and as yet unresolved challenge. As one case in point, the use of AI tools in academic writing has become widespread, threatening academic integrity.

As Europe contemplates what role AI will play in higher education, a nuanced approach is essential. Forbidding or attempting to police AI use will not work, especially given the limitations of current AI detection tools, which are known to inadvertently penalise people writing in a language that is not their native tongue.

A forward-looking strategy requires an assessment of how human skills can be complemented and enhanced by AI capabilities. For example, a hybrid model could involve students using AI for initial essay drafts at home, with classroom time dedicated to collaborative critiques, enhancement, and the development of critical thinking skills.

In these early stages of figuring out what the integration of AI means for higher education it’s important to involve educators and educational institutions in EdTech innovation, making them a part of the process rather than simply subject to it.

With over 200 universities and 500 education partners in its network, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Urban Mobility group is gathering the diverse needs of the universities in working with this emerging sector.

EIT Urban Mobility is working with leaders and experts in the industry to set out a European EdTech roadmap. EIT Urban Mobility appreciates EdTech’s immense potential to train urban mobility professionals, use it in citizen engagement when updating neighbourhoods, and to be part of the curriculum for university students, which are all at the core of the sector’s future.

Europe’s high number of independent research and higher education institutions, its democratic public education system, and diversity of culture and language, puts us in a position to define our own path in using and developing EdTech. It will be key to ensure data security, protect academic integrity, prevent bias in AI, and its mediate its impact on creativity. Although Europe is not yet in the ring with China, India, or the US in terms of the EdTech economy, the emergence of this sector has the potential to reflect the unique characteristics of the EU.

Unique strengths

In 2022, €1.64 billion was invested in EdTech in Europe. This sizable sum pales next to the language learning application developed by Duolingo, a US company with a valuation of $8.88 billion in 2023.

But while Europe may not yet match the scale of US-based EdTech companies, the continent’s unique strengths position it for substantial growth. According to Brighteye’s Edtech Funding Report in 2022, the UK was in the top spot, securing the most funding in Europe for EdTech development and advancement. It was followed by Germany, Austria, France, Spain, Poland, Italy, and Denmark, which are all working to increase funding in their respective markets.

A few European EdTech companies are becoming household names: Coding Giants in Poland, Sharpist in Germany, Kahoot! In Norway and Italy-based Futura.

The European EdTech scene has a strong band of up-and-coming new companies. The next step in creating a more competitive and a European EdTech ecosystem is to foster a more interconnected approach that transcends national borders and positions the sector as a strategic one for the European economy. A supranational approach would not only address educational, but also economic and data security imperatives facing the sector. At the same time, such collaboration would maintain and strengthen the spirit of the EU creating an EdTech sector true to our shared values.

The prospects for EdTech in Europe have captured our imaginations, now let’s make it a reality.

Martin Vendel is Academy Director at EIT Urban Mobility.

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