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Centre for Online and Distance Education

University of London Knowledge Diplomacy Conference: a student perspective


Written by
Hazel Stevenson

As a Student Research Fellow at the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE), I was delighted to be able to attend the inaugural University of London Knowledge Diplomacy Conference in Paris. I studied postgraduate law as an external student at the University of London and as such there were several elements that resonated with me at the conference. Over the two days of discussions and presentations it became apparent that the approach jurists take when considering ‘what is law?’ is similar to the questions facing us when considering ‘knowledge’. Legal scholars ask not only what is law but inter alia who does it apply to? What rights are associated with it? What is its role in geopolitics? How can it protect our society and the environment? All of these questions equally apply to ‘knowledge’ and were considered in detail at the conference.

There was a broad spectrum of speakers and delegates, with academics from a number of UK and continental Higher Education Institutions, practitioners of diplomacy, non-governmental organisations representatives, postgraduate students and many institutions including CODE. Presentations included topics as diverse as Science Diplomacy in the Arctic, to Cultural Relations and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Dr J Simon Rofe, the Deputy Director of CODE and Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, chaired the introductory discussion where it became clear that Knowledge Diplomacy meant different things to different people. Dr Rofe also chaired the panel on Knowledge Diplomacy and Access to Knowledge on the second day of the conference. As a student who sat exams remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was particularly interested in the presentation delivered by Prof Chie Adachi, Dean of Digital Education at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), during this panel. She is tasked with setting up the Digital Education Studio at QMUL. Her views on the problems of academic assessments in the digital age aligned with those expressed by Professor Mark Sharples in his keynote speech on generative AI in education at the RIDE conference this year. They both advocated the need for a framework for digital education.

CODE’s RIDE conference was also referenced by Dr Melanie Garson, Cyber Policy Lead at the Tony Blair Institute of Global Change, in her presentation on AI. The delegates discussed the role of AI in various aspects of society, from law to education to Hollywood script writing. It was interesting to hear concerns about the ‘risk of abdication of intellectual abilities’ within the teaching environment, or concern about the anti-contrarian nature of AI. Dr Garson pointed out that the latest version of ChatGPT could be used as a creative tool and that this could lead to different but interesting combinations of human and AI generated outputs. Simon raised the question ‘what is the future of knowledge’, and it appears that the future contains AI. Without us actively embracing digital education and AI, the panellists felt there was a real and significant risk of being left behind on the global stage. My experience as a practitioner leads me to agree. I now find AI a valuable tool for starting many different types of projects. I would also agree that it needs to be an iterative process with regular human interaction and treated with a level of scepticism, when, for example, considering referencing and the reliability of sources, but it allows a faster pace of work which will likely become the new norm in the not-so-distant future.

As with legal scholars discussing law, similarly during the two days of discussions there were more questions concerning the rapidly developing concept of Knowledge Diplomacy than answers, which is a sign of any good conference. The questions concerning knowledge(s) and diplomacy (or diplomacies) are difficult, and reliable answers require diverse discussions. What is clear is that in order to understand Knowledge Diplomacy it is important to comprehend the diverse functions that knowledge, research and institutions play in international relations. The University of London Institute in Paris, in collaboration with CODE and ICR Research led the project, and the institutions involved in the project’s Core Group and the Steering Group recognise the potential of this opportunity. The collaboration has led to the exploration of the applicability of its framework in addressing global challenges, such as climate change, pandemics, and conflict as well as understanding the roles of cities, knowledge exchange and cultural relations since 2019 with the aim of facilitating unique access and collaboration among practitioners of diplomacy and academics through a variety of outputs, including in-person conferences, research, online events and workshops. For further details of the project’s outputs see the Knowledge Diplomacy Project webpage.

The conference’s focus was on initiating discussion on the wider roles of higher education institutions, knowledge exchange, research and innovation in transnational cooperation and diplomacy. The combination of disciplines and nationalities attending made the experience exceptional. Knowledge Diplomacy is broad and challenging but in order to succeed there needs to be the exchange of knowledge across economic, social and geographical boundaries. These points greatly align with the priorities of CODE. The conference in Paris was a very exciting experience and as a postgraduate student having the opportunity to be part of the project was inspiring.