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If AI is to become a key tool in education, access has to be equal

A young girl in a pale pink sari staring intently at a computer
Students who lack access to computers or a reliable internet connection may not be able to take advantage of digital tools like chatbots. imageBROKER / Alamy

The pandemic forced many educational institutions to move to online learning. Could the rise of chatbots, including OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, now further improve the accessibility of learning and make education more obtainable for everyone?

Chatbots are computer programmes that use artificial intelligence to simulate conversation with human users. They work by analysing the context of a conversation and generating responses they believe to be relevant. They have been trained on massive data sets of human language, allowing them to generate responses to a wide range of questions.

Chatbots like ChatGPT and Bard can be used in a variety of educational settings, from primary and secondary schools to universities and adult education courses. One of their greatest strengths is in promoting individualised learning.

For example, they can support students in research and writing tasks, while also promoting the development of critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. They can generate text summaries and outlines, aiding with comprehension and organising thoughts for writing. They can also provide students with resources and information about specific topics, highlighting unexplored areas and current research topics, thus enhancing research skills and encouraging agency in learning.

Similarly, research has shown that chatbots can help to maintain students’ motivation and involvement, in part by promoting self-directed learning and autonomy. This means they they can potentially be used to help address low engagement in education that has been made worse by COVID-19 and the move to remote online learning.

Digital poverty

While chatbots have the potential to enhance learning, it’s important to acknowledge the dangers they might also pose in relation to digital poverty and the digital divide. Students who lack reliable internet access or other resources needed to participate in online classes may not have access to chatbots or other digital learning tools.

Results from the 2021 census show that in January to February 2020, 96% of households in Great Britain had internet access, up from 93% in 2019 and 57% in 2006 when comparable records began. However, these statistics do not tell the whole story.

A 2020 Ofcom Survey found that before COVID-19, 9% of UK households with children lacked a laptop, desktop or tablet, and 4% had only smartphone access. A higher percentage of children in lower-income households were affected by lack of access to digital devices. Specifically, 21% of households where the main earner held a semi-skilled or unskilled occupation had no access to a laptop, desktop or tablet for their children’s education at home.

This situation is clearly worse in countries where access to any form of internet provision is much lower than it is in the UK. Recent statistics from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for example, highlight that in many African countries, less than 10% of the total population has access to the internet at any speed.

Likewise, while ChatGPT is a publicly available tool that users do not need to pay to use, there is a paid version which unlocks privileged access. Similarly BARD, also free to use, is currently only available in certain countries. Put simply, like any other technology, chatbots have the potential to worsen pre-existing inequalities if they are not implemented carefully.

Fixing the problem

To address this, educational institutions must take proactive measures to ensure that all students have equal access to chatbots and other digital resources. Another challenge is ensuring that students understand that not everyone has the same access to digital tools as they do. Educators can help to promote this understanding by incorporating lessons on digital poverty and equal access into their curriculum.

Here are five tips for educators to ensure equity in the use of chatbots in educational settings:

1. Provide equal access to chatbots Educational institutions should ensure that all students have the same access to digital resources by providing loaner laptops, offering free or discounted internet access, or providing offline options for students with limited internet access.

2. Partner with community organisations Universities and schools can link up with community organisations that provide internet access or lend computers to students in need.

3. Offer technology training Some students may not be familiar with using chatbots or other technology tools, so schools and universities should offer technology training to help students develop the skills they need.

A teacher and two pupils looking at a laptop.
Training in using this AI technology is vital. Ian Allenden / Alamy

4. Provide support for students with disabilities Students with disabilities may face unique challenges when it comes to accessing and using chatbots. For instance, visually impaired students may face difficulties reading chatbot text, while students with cognitive disabilities may require additional support to understand and use chatbots effectively. Educators should ensure support is available for students who require extra help.

5. Raise awareness of digital equity Educators can also help ensure equity in the use of chatbots by educating students to understand that not everyone has the same access and privileges in a digital setting. By encouraging empathy and awareness of digital poverty, students can learn to be mindful of their peers who may face challenges in accessing and using chatbots. This can be done through class discussions, assignments and activities that encourage students to think critically about digital equity and social justice.

Chatbots have the potential to revolutionise learning. However, educational institutions must address the potential dangers posed by chatbots with regards to further deepening the digital divide, and instead foster a culture of empathy and understanding for those who need training and supported access to the technology.

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