A call to action to address inequity in AI access (opinion) – Inside Higher Ed

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Leaders in higher education must take decisive actions to prevent artificial intelligence (AI) from further exacerbating inequality.

AI literacy has already become a gating qualification for participants across America’s workforce. In one recent survey by Amazon Web Services, a staggering 73 percent of employers report prioritizing hiring talent with AI skills. Those employers are willing to pay candidates with AI expertise significantly higher salaries—in some cases almost 50 percent more. Equipping students for career success and social mobility therefore requires an immediate, holistic and collective approach to building AI literacy. To do so, we must first begin with access while carefully examining both policy and pedagogy.

There is a notable disparity among students’ perceptions of and openness to AI technology and tools. A fall 2023 survey by San Diego State University captured impressions from nearly 8,000 current college students, revealing that more than 71 percent agree that AI will become an essential part of most professions. However, survey results also indicated that students who had more access to technology— those who own more smart devices—were more likely to view AI positively and less likely to find AI tools intimidating or complex. Reinforcing the point, when data from the SDSU survey was disaggregated to compare university students living in a populous urban area compared with those living in California’s most economically challenged county, the students from the latter community report far lower use of AI tools, far lower comfort with or understanding of those tools, and far less positive impact from those tools on their educational experience.

First-generation, low-income and underrepresented minority students are already behind and enter higher education with a digital divide already in place. This was further illustrated by recent research from the Public Policy Institute of California on disparate access to digital devices and the internet for K-12 students in the nation’s largest state public-school system. Put simply, students who are already at an educational and digital disadvantage because of family income and first-generation constraints are becoming even more so every day as their peers embrace AI at high rates as a productivity tool—and they do not.

Further compounding the threat of divergent access and perceptions of AI technology is a growing trend toward commodification of AI tools. While some tools will remain free, it appears that the most powerful and modern tools will increasingly come at a cost. The U.K.-based nonprofit Jisc recently reported that access to a full suite of the most popular generative AI tools and education plug-ins currently available could cost about £1,000 (about $1,275) per year. For many students already accumulating student debt and managing the rising cost of living, paying more than $100 per month for competitive AI tools is simply not viable.

And finally, despite the increasing integration of AI into coursework, SDSU’s recent survey was one of many to highlight that only a fraction of students report encouragement from professors or consistency in policies for use of AI resources.

In short, as the need for and value of AI skills continues to increase, there are vulnerable segments of our communities that either feel negatively about it, cannot afford it or do not have clear direction for its acceptable and ethical use, and are therefore fearful their use of AI could cost them their education or career. There is a critical need to address access, understanding and perception issues among our most high-need populations to prevent AI from widening the already pervasive digital divide.

Universities—and especially public universities that were created to serve their communities—are in a powerful position to fulfill this social responsibility. They are uniquely positioned and capable of ensuring that as AI drives innovation and progress, it does not simultaneously drive disparity. To this end, there are four key actions that higher education institutions can and should take right away to level the playing field, protect equity and drive opportunity.

First, colleges and universities must forge partnerships for AI affordability and access. An individual institution holds little power or leverage in conducting business with the tech giants leading the AI charge. However, forging partnerships and collaborations among higher education institutions will enable the collective negotiation of fair pricing models with AI vendors that prioritize accessibility for students. Discounts offered to educational institutions should be substantial, reflecting the imperative of affordability for all. To this end, SDSU has launched the Equitable AI Alliance (EAIA) and is actively discussing this important topic with universities across the state and country.

Second, higher education leaders must embrace data-driven discussions and decision making to inform policies and practices surrounding AI in education. As AI evolves, adding ever more complex capabilities around generative text, video, sound, creative media and more, so too will student expectations and usage. Further, universities should gather and pool both current and longitudinal data on changing perceptions and use to create deep and representative understandings of the national availability and use of AI and its impact on student learning and employability.

Third, acknowledging the discrepancy between student and faculty perceptions and inconsistent policies for the use of AI tools in academics, universities must provide training on the acceptable and responsible use of AI technology, including on recognizing bias and the need to keep a human in the loop. Free, basic training for students, faculty and staff will ensure a smoother navigation of the new digital landscape. Certification programs for each of these audiences can be introduced and encouraged as a pathway for those seeking more in-depth expertise.

And finally, institutional leaders must prioritize the development of comprehensive AI strategies. Input for these strategies must come from heterogeneous stakeholders at all levels of the organization—including students. Along with setting roadmaps and milestones for adoption of AI technology in the classroom, these teams must prioritize equity, affordability and responsible usage as core pillars of their work. If your university is not already developing responsible use guidelines for AI, then it is choosing to turn a blind eye instead.

Now is the time to act. As AI continues to reshape the educational landscape, we must prioritize affordability, equity and responsible usage so that all students have the opportunity to thrive in an increasingly AI-driven world. We extend an invitation and challenge to our fellow higher education leaders to join in this critical endeavor. Let us seize this moment in embracing the vast potential of AI while paving the way for a more inclusive future for all students.

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