Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Higher Education – Improving Institutional Operations

It’s a new educational frontier with AI, and it could benefit higher education for the next generation and beyond.

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It’s a new educational frontier with AI, and it could benefit higher education for the next generation and beyond.

Artificial Intelligence is becoming mainstream—industries that have traditionally lagged behind big innovation trends are now looking seriously at how AI could help them. Higher education is uniquely suited to using AI to address sustainability challenges.

AI has been in the news for several years now, though our understanding of what it is and is not has changed, shifted, deepened. AI enables mundane, algorithmic tasks to be performed more quickly and efficiently, and provides a means for people to interact with technology in a more natural, familiar way. In many cases, AI arrives at simple decisions much more quickly than people can. While some risks remain and some questions are unanswered, we have become much more comfortable with the idea, in many cases, that “intelligence” can be automated.

One example of an AI application is the “bot,” an AI that mimics the language of a person within an Instant Messenger window and talks to another person. Many companies use bots as a front line of interaction with customers—are behind the chat windows that pop-up on a customer support website.  Bots interpret the questions asked in a chat window, find the answer to that question within a company’s vast information stores, and then transform that internal information into a natural language response. In some cases, a bot can act on behalf of a customer.

In answering straightforward questions, bots perform admirably. When questions become nuanced or complex, bots are programmed to escalate the interaction to a human, much the same way that customer support call center personnel will escalate complex questions from Tier 1 support to Tier 2 support. The benefit to the company that deploys a bot is scale; since bots are “digital support professionals,” they can handle many thousands more inquiries than humans can, answering most questions effectively and naturally. 

Bots in Higher Education

Today’s high school or undergraduate students have never been more amenable to AI. Many have grown up in homes with Alexa, or other smart automation devices. When they visit a website, they expect a chat window. They appreciate the efficiency with which they can get answers to their introductory level questions. They don’t really care whether they are speaking to a person or a bot; they are simply happy to get the information they want, however they get it.

Let’s think about the enrollment process. While young people undoubtedly make their final decisions based upon several human factors (i.e. classroom sizes, opportunities to work with distinguished faculty, student services provided), there is an introductory fact-finding period. During that introductory period, prospective students are asking straightforward questions about curriculum, faculty, services and costs. Some of this information can be gathered by reading information on a website. As the process continues, an applicant may ask more specific questions about a department, or the financial aid package for which they would be eligible. These questions may be difficult for a web page to answer, because they are specific to the applicant.

So, what if that applicant could introduce itself to a bot, which would look up specific information from that applicant’s file, and provide more on-point information to that applicant? What if that AI could talk to the applicant in their native language? Would that level of personalization matter? And in terms of student support services, have the capability to communicate with students in their native language, answer simple questions and route more complex issues to the appropriate personnel and perform work on behalf of the student. In today’s hyper-competitive environment, where institutions are challenged to attract and retain students from around the globe, this capability is a game changer—an extended reach with fewer human resources.

Beyond Bots – Helping Teachers Teach and Students Learn

While institutions are continually experimenting with ways to deliver education in innovate ways, AI does not aspire to replace teaching; rather, AI is most effective in improving institutional operations. Students require some care—what if schools could proactively check in with students who are exhibiting worrisome trends?

If schools send notifications to students via text messaging or mobile apps, how are decisions made about which students get notified of which information? Are all students notified of school events, or is the information more personalized and targeted? Some students participate in school-sponsored travel; do these students receive information exclusively from faculty or their assistants? By automating decisions regarding information distribution, AI can help improve the relevancy of information, reduce administrative burdens and improve student welfare.

As an example, let’s assume students pay for meals with a meal card and that purchases are recorded in a database. An AI scan of this data, along with some anonymized student profiles, would identify normal behavior, such as number of meals per week by gender or by major. Data recorded in this database represent observable behavior, and when this behavior changes, AI can spot it. Simple and straightforward, the decision to provide beneficial information to a student can be automated with AI.

It’s a new educational frontier with AI, and it could benefit higher education for the next generation and beyond.

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