Science & Technology

UNESCO bats for more AI in Indian education; Will it work?

UN body recommends ethical, responsible use of artificial intelligence for quality education, experts point to digtal divide

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Thursday 22 September 2022
Artificial Intelligence made inroads into the Indian education system during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons _

India should focus more on artificial intelligence in its education system, a recent United Nations report has recommended. Experts, however, have raised doubts on how such a policy would work through the stark digital divide.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed 10 policy recommendations in its report released September 20, 2022. It recommended AI to accelerate progress toward the fourth Goal of Sustainable Development. 

Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

2022 State of the Education Report (SOER) for India: Artificial Intelligence in Education — Here, There and Everywhere has policy recommendations to guide the Indian government, which has identified education as one of the five major areas for using AI-driven technology.

AI applications are increasingly becoming common in India, with its recent development and impacts on many fields, including education, said Joyce Poan, programme specialist and chief of education for UNESCO New Delhi. 

Read more: How much loss have we seen in child education during the pandemic?

The UN body recommended that Indian stakeholders adopt techniques to eliminate biases, like gender, in algorithms — which are primarily developed in the Global North. 

“Biases are directly related to the data fed into the programme, which is often influenced by preconceived human stereotypes and prejudices,” Poan explained during the press conference September 20, 2022.

Transparency is essential to achieving neutrality, said Krishnashree Achutan, dean of postgraduate programmes from Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, a private deemed university based in Coimbatore. “There should be regulatory bodies that help us validate these AI-based products,” she added.

Experts, however, believe the policy recommendations are abstract.`

“These have a feel-good factor for policymakers. I don’t think this means anything at the ground level,” Aniket Sule, associate professor at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, told Down To Earth.

Further, questions were also raised on whether AI can help schools that lack basic infrastructure.

“AI has a marginal role to play as it can only help the upper-middle class strata of the society,” Soumitro Banerjee, professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata, told DTE.

You cannot visualise these recommendations applying to the children of farmers and labourers, he added.

The recommendations listed by the UN body include prioritising the ethics of AI in education; providing an overall regulatory framework and creating effective public-private partnerships, other than eliminating bias, including ones of gender, in algorithms. 

Ensuring technology access to teachers and students and expanding AI literacy efforts to inform people about the benefits and risks of the technology were some of the other recommendations. 

UNESCO also suggested improving public trust, requesting the private sector to include students and educationists in developing AI-based tools, placing ownership of data with the students and embracing the versatility of AI in education systems.

Read more: COVID-19: Access to devices a must for bridging the digital divide

AI ethics, which cover data privacy and ownership, algorithmic fairness and biases, are particularly relevant in education, according to UNESCO. This is because algorithms are built from data often owned by private companies, which can lead to undesirable consequences, it warned.

Though UNESCO suggested the technology has the scope to deliver quality content to remote locations, Sule asked if private players are ready to invest in rural hinterlands lacking computers or basic infrastructure.

Many of the policy recommendations are abstract. For instance, the meaning of “creating effective public-private partnership” is not clear either. 

Further, the report highlighted that AI could help address some challenges in the Indian education system, such as socio-economic inequities, gender inequalities, insufficient teachers and inadequate teaching quality, high drop-out rates, linguistic barriers and the digital divide, the report read.

But Banerjee questioned how AI could address the digital divide.

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in 2020 exposed the divide as it drove school drop-out rates in India.

Closing of 1.5 million schools during the pandemic impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, according to UNICEF. Only one in four children has access to digital devices and internet connectivity, said a press statement from the United Nations body

There are other issues too. The country is far from benefiting from one application of AI: Enabling personalised student assessment, Sule also pointed out.

Technology could help teachers track learning outcomes and assess the competencies of individual students in real-time, the report said. It can identify individual strengths, weaknesses, knowledge levels and learning speed, it added.

Read more: Developing economies risk exclusion as ‘age of AI’ dawns

For example, this technology can train students based on their learning ability. “We are far from attaining this level of engagement in India,” Sule said, adding that initiatives will require a lot of investments in research and development.

He also added that more research is needed to vet the efficiency of AI before putting it to use in schools. “We have seen many Ed-Tech companies selling inferior products,” Sule said, adding that parents are often unaware of such issues.

The government is likely to buy products based on cost-benefit analysis. “So, who is going to vet the quality?” he asked.

Instead, Banerjee added that the emphasis should be on developing a curriculum that enables critical thinking among students and improving basic infrastructure in schools.

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