Would you like to chat?” The Ethics of AI in Higher Education

I recently led a session at the eResearch Australasia conference on the ethics of AI in higher education. It is a big topic to handle, and I’m pretty new to this stuff, but the conversation went pretty well, and the awareness of both AI and ethics is high in this community.  The ethical challenges posed by AI are significant, but the benefits are also great, and it is vital for educators and citizens to be aware of both.  Here are some of the key points made by the audience (and I am pursuing the topic, so will post some more later on).

  • Off the shelf solution of AI can influence the decision making of research
  • There need to be transparency in machine decision making (or avoid certain decisions).  And we need to avoid a dependency on machine decisions
  • Perhaps a certification of AI products from a regulatory body
  • AI may have a negative impact on the job market

eResearch Australasia Conference, 2018

After many false dawns, AI may be gaining traction. Chatbots, Natural Language Processing, robots, autonomous vehicles, and the combination of big data and AI are all findings applications in a myriad of commercial, educational and other contexts.  AI was once about explicit commands; what you put in is what you got out, but now it is largely about machine learning and big data, about machines that not only learn, but also make decisions. This is behind a number of new and emergent applications in medicine, transport and education that hold great promise but also ethical challenges.

In particular, it is an ability to ‘make decisions’ that poses numerous ethical dilemmas; can an autonomous Volvo car chose to collide with either a pedestrian or a dog ‘ethically’; can a Google chatbot impersonate a human for nefarious purposes, and can an autonomous military drone decipher images of illicit activity and then take autonomous action?  These are not dystopian projections of a sci-fi future, rather these ethical issues that exist now well within the province of AI and its applications.

Whilst ethicists have provided critique, debate, and numerous ethical frameworks for an AI future, (indeed the Australian Government has just proposed a “technology roadmap, a standards framework and a national AI Ethics Framework”, and regulation in the space), higher education has been relatively quiet in terms of debating the impacts of AI on teaching and research and the broader HE education system.  Indeed, while AI applications are not yet fully realised in research, this could opportune time to think about them, before they are (and this change could occur quite rapidly as did the use of data in research across both the humanities and the sciences).

Some of the ethical issues posed include the stalwart of IT ethics, being privacy, but also new issues arise, particularly around transparency and the interpretation of data using machine learning and how these interpretations may influence later research findings, be credited as research work, and indeed impact upon broader society.  This is a particularly difficult issue as AI does afford many benefits in terms of the researcher’s ability to deal with the scale and complexity of big data, but there are things that machines are good at and things that people do better, and this intersection of machine and people intelligence, including ethical decision making, needs to be considered from the very emergence of AI in research.

This Birds of Feather session proposes to discuss the ethics of AI, big data and research, with the purpose of providing a basic ethical framework for emergent AI and in broader research practice.  This framework could be used as a stand-alone guide for researchers or as an addendum to existing research ethics, privacy and data processing guidelines


  1. Anthony Seldon, “The Fourth Education Revolution”, University of Buckingham Press, 2018
  2. Rose Luckin, “Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology: What the research says” Institute of Education Press (IOE Press), 2018
  3. Bostrom, Nick. “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”, Oxford University Press, 2014
  4. Pollit, Edward.  “Budget 2018: National AI ethics framework on the way, Increased regulation signalled as part of $30m investment” Australian Computer Society, https://ia.acs.org.au/article/2018/budget-2018–ai-boost-with-an-ethical-focus.html (Accessed 13 June 2018).


Is there a beyond in Constructive Alignment?

Next week at the ASCILITE conference, I will be conducting a debate about the pros and cons of ‘Constructive Alignment’ in higher education, especially as it relates to digital learning tools.  Debates are a really good pedagogy in terms of outlining the pros and cons of a topic and building the soft and hard skills of participants.

The great debate at the ASCILITE Conference 2018. Beyond Constructive Alignment

Constructive Alignment has been with us for quite some time. From its origins in education theory in the 1990s, partly as a means to address some of the pedagogical challenges of scale in mass, higher-education, it has now become the dominant pedagogy in Australian higher education. Originally intended as a means to consistently and holistically design syllabi around learning outcomes and delivery and assessment methods (Biggs, 2003), it is now—as claimed in a recent book on the subject—an overly mechanistic, industrial process that may stifle innovation and creativity, some of the key skills of a 21st Century workplace and society (Nelson, 2018).  This is because of its slavish, uncritical application and lack of imagination regarding refreshing and building upon its significant legacy. Is there a Post-Constructive future and what may this future look like? And what does this mean for digital education, in its various guises, one of the more transformative areas of higher education? In this debate, we will survey the various applications of Constructive Alignment and perhaps imagine a Post-Constructivist future!

The great debate at the ASCILITE Conference 2018. Beyond Constructive Alignment

Significant efforts have been made to integrate constructive alignment principles in all aspects of the learning process. From writing the subject outline, the inclusion of subject content to align with the learning outcomes, the methods used to engage with the students and communicate the subject content, and the methods used to assess students through rubrics and fine-grained quantification. As a means to explicitly delineate the architecture of learning, it is, at times, a useful solution; however problems arise when this architecture becomes too rigid, reductive and pragmatic, as it engenders conformity, passivity, and a strategic, instrumentalist approach to education that undermines the independence, judgement, curiosity and creativity of both educator and student (Nelson, 2018).  

Digital mediated education, one of liveliest area of innovation in higher education, has a lot to lose from the uncritical embrace of Constructive alignment as computer technology can easily be co-opted for instrumentalist, industrial processes. It is rigid architectures that we must resist in designing our education as it was flexibility, creativity, risk, and imagination that brought us computing technology in the first place.

The great debate at the ASCILITE Conference 2018. Beyond Constructive Alignment

Is it possible to imagine a Post-Constructivist future, one with fewer rubrics, fewer criteria; with fewer pre-packaged learning outcomes and with more independent learning and creativity? Is there a limit to the extent of ‘constructive alignment’ that a topic may bare; the more fine-grained the rubric, it seems, the more it privileges the actual creator of the rubric, rather than the creators of knowledge that it seeks to quantify. Can we imagine something beyond Constructive Alignment; a scaffolding of the learning process in a less mechanistic, less prescriptive, and less reductive manner? Constructive Alignment may become the uncritical and unimaginative deference for an emergent generation of followers rather than leading creatives and innovators.

Can we revitalise Constructive Alignment or can we imagine a Post-Constructivist future?


Biggs, J.B. Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment, Higher Education, 32(3), 347-364.  1996.

Biggs, J.B. Teaching for Quality Learning at University. What the student does. Second Edition. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press 2003.

Mimirinis, Mike. ‘Constructive alignment’ and learning technologies: some implications for the quality of teaching and learning in higher education, Seventh IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT 2007)

Nelson, Robert, Creativity Crisis: Towards a Post-constructivist education future, Melbourne, Monash University Publishing, 2018.

Black Cat Fitzroy

Black Cat Fitzroy

I’ve been visiting the Black Cat Fitzroy for as long as I can remember. The first time I came to this bohemian dive was sometime around 1988. It has managed to reinvent and reinvigorate itself, perhaps a little more than I have. It was one of the original cafes in the district that helped build the artsy Brunswick Street of today. I come here every Sunday and chill and listen to some good Sunday arvo music. A legendary institution.

Returning to South America

Late last year, I returned to Ecuador in South America on snug annual leave to revisit that agreeable country. I was there for just over a week, which was admittedly, a bit ‘loco’ considering I spent about a similar amount of time on aeroplanes getting there.

Flying over so much rich geo-cultural context like a Modern, instrumentalist corpse in a cheap-tin-coffin aeroplane was almost worth it to visit Quito, Cuenca, and my Ecuadorian mates again. I say almost worth it because it was frustrating not being able to explore and unpack some of the curious cultural layers and geography in Ecuador. I was restricted to the urban areas and did not see the jungle nor the coast, two regions of Ecuador I have yet to explore.

Plaza de Armas Quito

And, in Ecuador, a country where over 90% of the population has some degree of indigenous heritage, they celebrate Columbus day as a national holiday 600 years after contact. Sure it has been “indigenised”, but they do not deny this history, it is what they are, contradictions and all.

As one of my favourite Australian historians once said, it is as though Australians cannot hold two (contradictory) ideas in their head at the same time; especially regarding our national ‘Australia Day” holiday it seems (which is held upon the date the first fleet came to Australia from ‘Modernity’ in 1788).

Many Indigenous South Americans have appropriated ‘Spanishness’ and utilise it as a form of identity and resistance in a world dominated by slavish consumer conformity.  Perhaps Captain Cook could also become a symbol of resistance to a much more pervasive and destructive form of contemporary Modernity.

Bullet proof moto

I have been riding a perfunctory and rather average Suzuki GS500 for close to 10 years now. In fact, I like them so much, that this is my third one. I rode a GS every day in London for three years, which was some of the best bus-dodging moto-riding of my life, and I have had two in Melbourne.

They are robust, nimble and forgiving of bad riding, they hardly ever need servicing, they are skinny enough to negotiate peak hour traffic, and big enough to escape the city on weekends (unless there is a headwind).  They aren’t particularly powerful, but as a daily beat-the-city-grind bike, you can’t go wrong.  You could possibly do a circuit of Australia on one of these things, at least this is what I tell myself as I manoeuvre the Benthamite grid of humanity as I ride home each night.


Fast lane to tears..

When I got back from travelling, one of my most immediate goals was to buy a new bike. But not an average bike and certainly not a 125cc. I dreamed of my future bike while riding through a sand storm on the way to Lima in Peru (the bike had slowed to walking pace, and I couldn’t see more than 100 metres ahead).  At this time I imagined that my next ride was going to be the largest cc moto I could afford,  something with about ten times the power of the 125cc.

So with what little money that I had when I returned, I went out and bought a BMW 1150 RT,  an older model with a lot of kilometres on the clock, but still, a beautiful ride, something like driving a luxury car.  I did a bunch of country rides and a long ride to Sydney with my friend David on the back, but the love affair with the BMW was to be short lived, as it turned out to be a Charleton and a one-trick pony.

BMW RT 1150 RT


In reflection, I’m am not sure what I was thinking, buying a BMW whale, it was a trophy bike for some other game. It was impossible to maintain, difficult to get between the fat traffic, and tricky to park on the footpath without maiming children.  What finally ended the affair was a mere flat battery. Replacing the battery required taking the fairing and petrol tank off, a task that took me half a day, and even then, the battery cost as much as a Llama.

So after three months, the BMW was sold for a considerable loss, and I purchased a bullet proof Suzuki GS 500, the third one I have owned, the most reliable, robust, and minimalist bike around.  I spent three years riding a GS 500 around London and I have owned two in Melbourne. I ride it almost every day, and it is socially flexible, unlike the BMW that was stuck in a fast lane to tears.

Camping in Natimuk, Victoria, Australia

Sydney to London via ex-posite bike!

This is such a wonderful story, incredibly inspirational.  But when do you stop?

“And I just don’t think as humans we’re programmed to reach a point where we’re happy with our lot. We always want more. And so I suppose at the end of the trip I realised it hadn’t really achieved anything and how I was still in the same mess as when I set off”