Stellenbosch University: Searching for Artificial Intelligence in Leuven

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​​​“We need to dream up what comes next and let our imaginations run wild, so that we begin to anticipate the various potentials of postdigital educational futures, rather than backing into them and hoping that we get it right” – David Kupferman1

This powerful sentiment of David Kupferman underlies my academic search for what the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) means for higher education in general and Stellenbosch University (SU) and the Centre for Learning Technologies (CLT) in particular. The search begun towards the end of 2021 in the form of a joint PhD study at KU Leuven and SU with the theme: Academic advising analytics dashboards: Towards artificial intelligence for student success. Through this study I hope to build knowledge of how AI works in higher education so that we as CLT and SU can indeed “dream what comes next” and not be surprised by the developments in 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution) technologies.

To this end I had the privilege in May to June this year to do research around AI in higher education at KU Leuven, Belgium’s most innovative and also oldest university. KU Leuven has a strong focus on AI research (e.g., Leuven.AI) and innovation (e.g., Technovation Hub) and I could rub shoulders with some of the best minds, through seminars, conferences, and networking events. As part of my pre-doctoral work, I discovered the foundations of AI through a university-wide course called AI for Everyone. The course gave a general introduction to AI by incorporating a free online course called Elements of AI, as well as a focused deep dive into how AI is used in different fields like Arts and Social Sciences (e.g., for poetry-creation), health sciences, economics, cyber security and learning analytics to name a few. It is the concept of machine learning in learning analytics and how it is used for advising students on their academic journey towards success that interested me the most as it aligns with my study.

In moments when I “let my imagination run wild,” I try and visualise the future of academic advising. At present academic advising is usually a face-to-face activity between a student and an adviser and the technology (like academic advising analytics dashboards which visualise a student’s academic journey by looking at all his/her past academic digital traces) serves to enhance the encounter. To my mind, it is not too far removed from reality to do a thought experiment in which AI-powered EduBots (educational chatbots) provide academic advising services 24/7/365 to students when and where they need them. To that end, I, together with my supervisors, developed a paper with the title EduBots as academic advisers: A speculative social science fiction thought experiment which I presented to the IRC 2022 conference in July in Dortmund, Germany. When I asked the audience to indicate who thinks such an autonomous AI-bot “adviser” was a viable idea, half of them agreed. Of course, the issue of AI systems taking over jobs is very relevant here and so my research is also driving me to seriously look at the ethical, legal, privacy and security aspects of AI systems for higher education.

Apart from developing my research project, I also managed to make numerous connections to other aspects and specialisations in higher education (like their student support systems and their new technology in education project) and I also made some wonderful new friends. Finally, I must “confess” that I did manage to sample some of the staple food groups of Belgium cuisine, namely beer, waffles, asparagus and frit, and of course I thoroughly enjoyed the mystery and beauty of the city Leuven!

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