Tuesday, January 02, 2024

AI University?

Tertiary Education in the UK needs a fresh idea. What we need is an initiative on the same scale as The Open University, kicked off over 50 years ago. It revitalised UK HE. It was not a threat to the existing Universities. It would take a movement akin to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII to replace the existing system and nobody wants that. What we need is something new and additive -  a University that uses AI to create and deliver high quality online education at relatively low cost.

Surely this could come from an incoming Labour Government, along the lines of Sperling in the early days, Michael Crow at Arizona State, Paul LeBlanc’s transformative results at SNHU or Ashok Goel’s vision of an AI University at Georgia Tech? It is clear that an educational vision is needed and I think the best starting point is that outlined and executed by Paul LeBlanc at SNHU. It is substantial, well articulated and has worked in what has become the largest University in the US.

It would be based on the competence model, with a focus on skills shortages. Here's a starter with 25 ideas, a manifesto of sorts, based on lessons learnt from other successful models:

1. Non-traditional students in terms of age and background

2. Quick and easy application process

3. Personalised learning using AI

4. Multimodal from the start

5. Full range of summarisation, create self-assessment, dialogue tools

6. Focus on generative learning using AI

7. Every teacher has a chatbot available 24/7

8. Teaching personalised

9. Teaching at any level 10. Teaching in many languages aided by AI

11. Online assessment when ready

12. Every student has a 'Digital Twin'

13. 2D and 3D environments for social interaction and learning

14. Automated feedback and assessment

15. Focus on critical skills shortages (nursing, teaching etc)

16. AI aided research processes (see separate article)

17. Intake at any time 18. Learning journeys optimised

19. Complete at your own pace

20. Make sure AI is part of curriculum

21. Data-driven approach with privacy ensured 22. Low admin, high 24/7 teaching and learning environment

23. Use part of apprenticeship levy

24. Get Big Tech to agree on proxy tax to fund

25. Based in the North

We know it will face opposition but our political class must get out of supporting the elitism that the current system promotes. We have the advantage of a great track record in HE, English as our teaching language and, as I said, we've done this before.

Our successful precedent for this is The Open University and we can learn from what happened there.

The Open University

The key players behind the creation of The UK Open University were UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the first ever Minister for the Arts Jennie Lee.

Wilson was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. Wilson and his Labour government are credited with founding The Open University, a revolutionary idea to make higher education accessible to a wider population.

Jennie Lee, who was appointed as the first Minister for the Arts and oversaw the establishment of the university, also played a significant role. Lee provided the political drive and determination to ensure the project’s success, navigating through skepticism and opposition. You need this political sponsorship.

White Paper

Wilson envisioned a university of the air, an institution that would utilise television and radio broadcasts to provide education to those who were unable to attend traditional universities due to various constraints like work, family, or distance. The idea was to make higher education accessible to all, irrespective of background or circumstances, reflecting a broader commitment to social justice and educational opportunity.

Lee’s white paper, presented in 1966, laid out the vision and operational plan for what would become The Open University. It outlined plans for the university which would deliver courses by correspondence and through the use of technology, such as television and radio, to broadcast its courses, thus linking it to the technological revolution of the time. The paper was part of a broader initiative to modernize British society, enhance the competitiveness of the economy, and promote greater equality of opportunity and social mobility. It was a pioneering effort to expand higher education beyond traditional boundaries and to utilize contemporary media in a way that had not been done before in the realm of education.

We need a similar strong White Papeer idea with 21st century technology, not radio and TV, but multimodal AI. The full array of courses (generate in part by AI), delivered partly by AI, assessed by AI should be the aim.


Jennie Lee faced widespread skepticism and opposition from various quarters in her pursuit to establish The Open University. The idea of a ‘University of the Air’ that would reach out to those previously denied the opportunity to study was met with resistance. Skepticism and opposition came from within the Labour Party, including senior officials in the Department of Education and Science (DES), her departmental boss Anthony Crosland, the Treasury, ministerial colleagues like Richard Crossman, and commercial broadcasters. Despite the challenges, The Open University was realized thanks to Lee’s unwavering determination, the support of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and initially modest anticipated costs. The true, much higher costs only became apparent later, by which time the project had gained too much momentum to be discontinued

The traditional universities were skeptical, even opposed to the idea of The Open University. They had concerns about the quality of education that could be delivered through distance learning and the use of media like television and radio. There was apprehension that an open admissions policy could dilute academic standards. Moreover, traditional institutions might have seen the establishment of a new university that challenged conventional norms as a threat to their established educational models and possibly their funding and enrolment. However, The Open University proved its merit over time by achieving high academic standards and gaining a solid reputation, which helped to alleviate many of these concerns.

Expect such opposition but understand that it gets us out of the obsession with the negatives around AI and moves us as a nation towards the positives. The DfE and traditional Universities need to recognise that they are too slow, expensive and old-fashioned to deliver for 21st century skills.


The Open University is still a positive force in Higher Education but has some serious setbacks, including a £20 million failed investment in trying to enter the US and Futurelearn, a MOOC company that failed to realise its initial promise, held back by traditional BBC appointments with little business, online technology or educational experience

Yet numerous open universities around the world were influenced by the model of The Open University in the UK. The success of this institution demonstrated that distance learning could be both reputable and accessible, leading to the establishment of similar universities globally. Some examples include:

The Open University of Israel, 1974.

FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany, 1974.

The Open University of the Netherlands, 1984.

Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India, 1985.

The Open University of China, originally established as China Central Radio & TV University in 1979.

Athabasca University in Canada, 1970, which shifted to an open university model following the UK's example.

Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) in Spain, 1972.

We could have the same influence again.

Library at Alexandria 

There is a much older precursor that can help shape this vision - the Library at Alexandria, which I regard as the first University. Unlike the earlier Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum Alexandria was a free, open and secular entity. There was no faculty, just a Chief librarian and catalogers. Neither was there any formal teaching, mostly debate and discussion. Researchers as teachers came in the 18th century with the Prussians and Humboldt.

It  proved to be the most powerful generator of ideas and inventions for 600 years, until scholastic religious forces banned the books and the shelves were emptied - it was never burnet down. I have explained the lessons we can learn from this elsewhere.

Educational vision

As for the vision, it can be found way back in the in the Universal Education of Comenius and more recently with Paul LeBlancs ideas and real example at SNHU. That can be found here. That same Alexandrian vision is to be found in his book Students First and his work in building the biggest University in the US. Our current system is far from this vision. Anorger useful precursor was John Sperling and to a lesser degree Michael Crowe at Arizona State. 


There is a sense of our old institutions having become cumbersome and sclerotic. At such advantage then lies with alternatives. These new, agile alternatives can do things faster, better and at lower costs. This is precisely what the evidence already shows for artificial intelligence. Unencumbered by slow, dull lectures, free from the tyranny of location, huge amounts of physical, campus real estate with low occupancy rates, expensive housing robbing others from such opportunities. Also free from the tyranny of time, the scheduled lectured, fixed end of year assessments and slow delivery punctuated by interminable holiday periods, it will thrive. Less detached from the real world it may also rebalance the drift towards overly-theoretical, text-only based learning towards badly needed skills. Education should be for both life and living.

Importantly, the current OU will not and cannot do this. They have developed a negative mindset towards this technology and are now more of a traditional university. It is too old-fashioned and sluggish to do this well. They have shown no signs of effort in this direction.

It is all about scale. The goals of reaching nontraditional students at low cost demand good tech with the sort of scalability that OpenAI and other providers have already delivered. It is AI that should be the catalyst here where the possibility of personalised teaching and learning in any subject, at any time, to any place , at any level 24/7, in almost any language, can be realised. the fact that ChatGPT has already been embraced by 100 million with billions of dialogues, mostly bu curious people who want to learn, should be our guiding light.

It is fine to say, it's not the technology but the vision that counts. I agree but when it comes to getting things done, building platforms and delivering, you need a sense of urgency and catalysts, not vision reports. We have plenty of them. And if you want a vision it is well articulated by Paul LeBlanc in Students First (2021). He also did it!

You need a new team that wants to transcend the tradtional thin diet of lectures plus essays, adopting a more supportive learning environment. Fresh blood, fresh ideas, fresh pedagogy and fresh forms of delivery. Being bold, it could even have no building or place. I don't see Duolingo, Khanmigo, Wikipedia or Google Scholar as being 'places'. The trick is, perhaps, to free learning from the tyranny of time and place.

I know of great institutions that have adopted the philosophy of open admission, flexible distance learning, and the use of technology to provide education to those who otherwise might not have access to it. They have played a significant role in expanding higher education and continue to impact lifelong learning across the globe. We could surely do this again. No massive campus costs with low occupancy rate buildings, all online, no travel to be in line with climate change demands and an exemplar once more for the rest of the world. Even better, base it in the North, that has long sustained a brilliant set of Universities.

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