Welcome to a new age of digital enlightenment

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun

Artificial intelligence takes the spotlight at this year’s Association of Colleges conference.

Staff discussion.

The buzz around artificial intelligence (AI) at this year’s AoC conference was undeniable.

From inspiring keynote speakers such as Julia Hobsbawm discussing the future of the workplace, to colleges such as Basingstoke College of Technology and Milton Keynes College using AI to boost wellbeing and lighten the administrative load for teachers, the use of innovative technologies was front and centre.

I believe we are rapidly entering a new age of knowledge acquisition leading to digital enlightenment.

There is a palpable thirst for knowledge amongst FE leaders and practitioners keen to understand the possibilities and grasp the emerging benefits of AI-augmented education. Following the disruption of the pandemic and the need for digitisation across teaching, learning and employment, I believe we are rapidly entering a new age of knowledge acquisition leading to digital enlightenment.

The first age of enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries followed significant societal disruption and led to advancements in science, law, governance and progress, and I envision this age of digital enlightenment to be no different.

Over the last year the number of different AI tools on offer has risen exponentially, and we have already seen much debate from world leaders around the regulation of AI to ensure what is used is safe, transparent, traceable, non-discriminatory and environmentally friendly. It is clear the blue touch paper of innovation has been lit, and we are only just beginning to explore the full potential of AI.

With an overriding sense of renewed optimism and opportunity to shape the future, I have been considering the role Jisc plays as the sector’s trusted partner in digital transformation across four key themes.

Impact of AI and augmentation of the FE workforce

Jisc’s national centre for AI in tertiary education supports our members to understand the myths, opportunities and threats surrounding AI in education and research.

Our AI primer is updated regularly to include recent advancements, and their impact on education and research.

We run monthly online courses to provide further guidance around generative AI in tertiary education and hold discussion clinics for our FE members to share ideas and experiences of working with AI.

The national centre for AI in tertiary education runs a series of AI pilots, including the recent rollout of Teachermatic, to allow our members direct experience of implementing AI with the support and guidance of Jisc experts.

Members can also join our AI community of practice to ask questions, share knowledge and collaboratively unlock the potential of AI in education.

Locality and connectedness

Digital poverty is a significant issue for students that do not have access to the right equipment or adequate connectivity.

Initial estimates by the experts at the NCAI found that if a student were to subscribe to a full suite of popular generative AI tools and education plug-ins, it could cost them around £1,000 a year, pushing generative AI out of reach for many and perhaps increasing the digital divide, leaving many at a disadvantage based on affordability.

On top of this, a quarter of FE respondents to Jisc’s 2023 learner digital experience insights survey (pdf) said that issues with poor wifi and mobile data were barriers to education.

To address this, Jisc is working on extending eduroam, the secure world-wide roaming access service, beyond the campus to provide staff and learners with consistent, reliable connectivity when and where they need it.

Expectations of future work and the workplace

During colleges week 2023 Jisc invited digital education leads from across FE to collaboratively imagine the future of the sector at an interactive workshop.

Attendees were asked to think about not only what their institutions, courses and resources would look like in the future, but also what skills employers will need to ensure the UK remains competitive.

By proactively asking ‘where do you want to go?’ Jisc is better placed to help members get there.

Agility, adaptability and embracing innovation

Some of our most exciting work is designed in collaboration with our members and industry to transform teaching and learning.

Our co-design team examines future trends and, in collaboration with our members, students and commercial providers, develops products and services to help the sector remain agile and competitive.

Our innovation experts work with members to understand their digital needs and identify and develop emerging technology to help them realise their ambitions.

From using holograms and touch free technology in the classroom to unlocking the potential of online learning and research through 5G connectivity, these projects are designed with our members, for our members, to drive purpose and spark innovation.

There are exciting times ahead as new and emerging technologies continue to change the landscape of education and work. If the next twelve months are anything like the last, the FE sector must harness its ability to adapt and evolve methods of teaching, learning and assessment - all the while with Jisc there to provide support and guidance where needed.

The future of FE is bright if we imagine it together, and I look forward to this next chapter of digital enlightenment.

The enthusiasm I observed at the AoC conference makes me confident that the future of FE is bright if we imagine it together, and I look forward to this next chapter of digital enlightenment.

Further information

Register for Digifest 2024 and join us in imagining the future. Not the inevitable, but what educators, researchers and students want it to be.

Digifest 2024 is a CPD accredited event. Attendees can contribute their learning time towards individual continuing professional development goals.

About the author

Headshot of Robin Ghurbhurun
Robin Ghurbhurun
UK managing director, further education and skills, nations, advice and training

I am the UK executive lead for Jisc’s FE and skills policy, stakeholder engagement, and services. I lead on Jisc’s strategy for supporting member FE and skills institutions with their digital transformation. This includes thought leadership, enhanced professional practice, data insights, business optimisation and elevating the student and staff digital experience.

In addition, I also provide executive leadership on our advisory and training services for further and higher education. I ensure Jisc has strategic engagement with Department for Education in England, Scottish Funding Council, Welsh Government and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland and other relevant agencies and digital suppliers. This enables collaboration to find the right solutions in areas such as edtech policy, digital infrastructure planning and investment.