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Greater understanding of ‘real risks’ and benefits AI brings is needed – Keegan

The Education Secretary has called on technology and education leaders to come forward with ideas on how AI can be used in a ‘safe and secure way’.

A greater understanding of the “risks” and opportunities that artificial intelligence brings is needed to ensure the education sector is “not left behind”, Gillian Keegan has said.

The Education Secretary has called on technology and education experts and business leaders to come forward with ideas on how generative artificial intelligence (AI) can be used “in a safe and secure way”.

In a speech at the London Tech Week conference, Ms Keegan launched a call for evidence on the benefits and concerns around AI use in education.

She said: “Artificial intelligence is transforming the world around us. The workforces that are best equipped in AI with the skills they need will be the ones that ride the next tech way.

“We must make sure that education is not left behind. For that potential to be realised we need to understand the opportunities, as well as the real risks that new technology brings.”

It comes after guidance from the UK’s major exam boards suggested that schools should make pupils do some of their coursework “in class under direct supervision” amid cheating fears in the context of AI use.

ChatGPT is a form of generative AI that can respond to questions in a human-like manner and understand the context of follow-up queries, much like in human conversations, as well as being able to compose essays if asked – sparking fears it could be used by students to complete assignments.

In a speech on Wednesday morning, Ms Keegan said: “Tech is reaching further and deeper than ever before. But if we are to harness its potential, our workforce has to be flexible and ready.

“Upskilling – so that we can use tech to its full potential – is one of the challenges that we all face if we are to keep our economy growing and competitive in a global context.”

Last month, BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, called for AI to be part of teacher training courses.

It came after a letter sent to The Times signed by more than 60 education figures said schools are “bewildered” by the rate of change in AI.

The Government is now seeking views from education professionals across the schools, colleges, universities and early years sector on the benefits of technology, as well as concerns about the risks.

The Department for Education hopes the call for evidence, which will run until August 23, will help to inform future work – including how AI could be used to reduce workload, improve outcomes, and run operations more efficiently, as well as work around misuse such as essay bots and cheating in exams.

Addressing the London Tech Week conference on Wednesday, Ms Keegan said: “We are opening a call for evidence seeking the views and experiences of business leaders like you on the use of generative artificial intelligence.

“The scope of this review includes large language models, such as ChatGPT, Google Bard and others.

“We’re also seeking views on the benefits and concerns around issues in education. And this will help us to make the right decisions to get the best out of generative AI in a safe and secure way.”

Ms Keegan highlighted that there was a shortage of people coming into computing professions and she warned that the gap “will only get bigger”.

The Education Secretary said she hopes the Government’s new Digital and Computing Skills Education Taskforce will make it “easier” for students to choose computing and digital pathways at school, college and university.

Speaking about T-levels qualifications which are technical alternatives to A-levels, she added: “Digital skills matter. As tech accelerates, they’re likely to become as important to a person’s employability as English and maths. Eventually being on a level pegging with those two core subjects.”

From September, students will be able to study new Digital Functional Skills Qualifications (DFSQs).

Sarah Hannafin, head of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence clearly has the potential to impact on education – in both positive and more concerning ways.

“It is good that this will be considered carefully, and any support related to the findings would be welcomed by schools who are currently dealing with issues as they arise largely on their own.”

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