Access to education is a basic human right for all. The United Nations describes education as “the building block for every society” – but for those experiencing digital inequity, there is a very real risk of falling behind as more learning moves online.  

One issue that has not been properly addressed is how poor access to artificial intelligence (AI) in education could widen the attainment gap. With its potential to enhance the student experience, barriers to accessing AI tools could increase the digital divide for those living with disadvantage.  

As one of the founding members of the data poverty APPG, a cross-party parliamentary group with a mission to eradicate data poverty across the UK, Jisc is committed to levelling the playing field, and is taking steps to help support this.  

Since the introduction of ChatGPT in November 2022, the use of generative AI has grown exponentially, and there has been much discussion around the implications for education. AI has the potential to help educators better understand and meet the needs of their learners and can provide students with a new set of skills, but this comes at a cost. 

During recent discussion forums with tertiary students about their use of AI, one of their main concerns was fair access and usage, particularly after charges started to be added to tools such as ChatGPT4.

Initial estimates by the experts at Jisc’s national centre for AI (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. 

Some AI tools are currently free to use but, without adequate connectivity, some students may still struggle to keep up with their peers and access the education they deserve.  

In Jisc’s 2022/23 digital experience insights survey for students, a third of respondents across higher education (HE) and a quarter from further education (FE) said that issues with poor wifi and mobile data were barriers to education.

As part of the data poverty APPG state of the nation report, Jisc recommends that free internet connectivity in public spaces be increased for students, and that websites for essential services, including access to educational services, should be zero-rated.  

Jisc continues to work with education providers to widen access to the internet, and we are currently running trials of affordable AI tools for educators in colleges to create a variety of essential and engaging materials for their students.  

More assessment is needed before AI becomes part of everyday use in education but, at the very least, all learners must be given access to suitable tools to ensure that disadvantaged individuals and communities are not excluded from education. 

Written by Paul McKean, Director of Further Education, Skills and Training at Jisc