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Education sector urged to embrace AI's rising influence

Fri, 30th Jun 2023

An overwhelming number of Gen Z students believe it is important for young people to develop the skills to use generative AI, according to new research from YouthInsight, Australia's premier youth-focused research agency. 

More than eight in 10 (8%) Gen Zs reported that it is somewhat important or important for young people to develop skills to use Generative AI effectively for their studies at school or University, with 88% holding the same view when it comes to work and careers.

The majority (64.6%) of Gen Zs reported having used Generative AI at the time of taking the survey, with one in four (25.7%) reportedly not using Generative AI, and one in ten (9.7%) unsure if they had used a generative AI tool.

Students are using AI to experiment and brainstorm ideas, not plagiarise

The research, conducted by YouthInsight, includes 576 young people aged 14 to 26 and delves into their perceptions and use of Generative AI, discovering that plagiarism was not common among students who had previously used generative AI. A large majority of students reported they had not used generative AI to plagiarise and would not in the future (71%). In fact, only nine per cent of respondents admitted they had plagiarised and would again.

Of the students who have not used Generative AI tools before, 79% reported that they would not use AI to plagiarise their work.

Instead of using generative AI to plagiarise schoolwork, tertiary students are most likely to use AI for information searches (44%) and experiment with the tool (57%). Similarly to tertiary students, students in high school are most likely to use AI tools for experimenting with the tool (59%), and for school work or study (59%). Interestingly, those in high school are additionally most likely to use AI for school assignments (42%).

Regardless of how they've used these tools previously, more than four out of five students (83%) reported that they would not use Generative AI to plagiarise in the future. This data is an important indication of how AI is genuinely being used by students, demonstrating that the vast majority of students are using it to help expand their knowledge rather than plagiarise.

With Australia's leading universities recently redesigning how students are assessed in response to the increasing popularity of AI tools and public schools banning tools like ChatGPT across Australia, this data provides necessary insight into how prominently AI is used to cheat in schools and universities. While a small minority of students have used AI to cheat, more boundaries need to be set by schools and the wider education sector to ensure students have a clear idea of how AI can be used for school work and assignments, as a large majority of students are using it for these purposes.

Students want education about AI tools and consider whether their future careers are in jeopardy

A large proportion of students surveyed have low confidence and skill levels when it comes to using AI. Some 43% of young people reported that they are not at all skilled or not very skilled, and 57% reported that they are very skilled or somewhat skilled when it comes to the use of AI tools.

Sixty one per cent of young people also reported they are not at all confident or not very confident when it comes to being able to tell when content is AI-generated. This data indicates that the education sector needs to promote education around AI tools and implement training within its system, to ensure that students are best utilising the technology at their disposal. And 45% of students agree that high school and University students should be trained in using Generative AI tools for study or work.

Almost one in five Gen Zs surveyed noted reconsidering their current or future study or career prospects as a result of generative AI tools. Of these young people, many are reconsidering their study and career pathways due to potential job displacement, while others are considering pivoting to technology. This suggests education on AI's role in the future workforce and the jobs potentially impacted by the rise of AI technology would be beneficial for students and should be considered by the Australian education sector.

"This is an opportunity for the education sector to safeguard student development and training in the use of a technology that is becoming widely available," says Dr. Anna Denejkina, PhD, Research Director for YouthInsight, said: 

"AI is an important moment in the history of education, and we must recognise that Generative AI is a tool that can be used in this space - young people are already telling us that they use Generative AI for self-learning. There is hypocrisy in workplaces embracing its use, while the education sector is working on ways to prevent its use or outright ban it.

"The discussion needs to move away from we must stop this to can Generative AI tools be used ethically and properly, and if so, how do we do this? What training and development are we responsible for that we need to provide to students?" Denejkina says.

"Our data clearly shows that students are not cheating at higher levels due to Generative AI tools. In fact, we need to be cautious when suggesting that AI is increasing the number of students plagiarising; its just another tool, like Google or commercial contract cheating, being misused by a minority of students," she says.

"When it comes to plagiarism, the bigger question is why students feel that they need to cheat - this isn't a conversation about Generative AI, but what position are we putting some students in that they feel the need to plagiarise or cheat in the first place? 

"Hyper-focusing on cheating over and above other issues, such as concerns about job displacement and possible career pathways impacted (all issues identified in our research), is a disservice to young people," Denejkina says. 

"We need to be discussing how we can support them in their education, learning, wellbeing, and their future careers and lives."

The gender gap is apparent when it comes to confidence in using AI tools

According to the data, men were more likely to report being somewhat or very confident in using Generative AI tools (74%) compared to women (56%). This trend extended to the ability to recognise AI-generated content, with men again more likely to label themselves as somewhat confident or very confident (46% versus 32% of women) in determining if content is AI-generated.

Apart from not being as confident in their use of AI as men, the women surveyed also had more concerns about the impact of AI, with over half (53%) being concerned versus 42% of young men. This data demonstrates that young women are not only unconfident in their ability to use AI tools but also have more concerns over how such tools will impact their future.

With almost half of the women surveyed (49%) having a neutral outlook on the future of generative AI tools versus 41% of men having a positive outlook, it is clear that young women are more likely to doubt their own abilities in relation to the use of artificial intelligence, which could stem from a number of factors including media exposure and a lack of suitable role models.

With the majority of public schools banning AI, while some private schools embrace the technology in their teaching, were running the risk of creating further inequalities. As our research indicates, gender also has a play in the confidence levels of young people when it comes to AI. The education sector is absolutely responsible for training students in this new skill set and building up their confidence.

"Not every student has the privilege of teaching this skill to them self, or even finding time outside of class to do this. We cannot let sub-groups be left behind with another technology that will impact the future of work," says Denejkina. 

"Otherwise, some five years down the track, we might be asking why high-paying roles like prompt engineers are dominated by one group over another, despite not taking action today."

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