Aug 16 2018

Artificial Intelligence Is Poised to Expand in Higher Education

Smart systems may fly under the radar, but early use cases indicate noticeable benefits.

“Are you replacing me with a robot?”

Bryan Fendley, an artificial intelligence expert and the director of instructional technology and web services at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, has heard this line for years. “Faculty members are worried they’re going to be traded in for a computer or the internet,” he says. 

Their concerns aren’t unusual. Seventy-three percent of Americans believe AI will eliminate more jobs than it will create, according to a poll by Gallup and Northeastern University

Still, 74 percent say AI will have a positive effect on their lives. And on campus, staffers are already using AI to gain efficiencies in administrative areas, such as admissions, and to give students faster, more personalized feedback.

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Artificial Intelligence Serves Faculty as Time-Saving Assistants

An early example of a successful application is Jill Watson, an AI teaching assistant at Georgia Tech. Ashok Goel, a professor of computer science and cognitive science at the college, initially created this AI system to help him respond to the many questions he receives from online students.

After several iterations, he gave Jill a live debut in his class. Now, she communicates with class members on routine questions, and students say her responses are indistinguishable from human assistants.

A more pedagogical application is equally compelling: Erik Anderson, a computer science assistant professor at Cornell University, developed a program that helps math teachers use AI to determine how students arrived at incorrect answers with colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington and Microsoft.

“The AI reverse-engineers the student thought process,” says Anderson. “It provides a much more nuanced view of what the student is doing.” He hopes that as the technology improves, it will understand more complex mathematical calculations and grade homework intelligently, giving students detailed feedback and awarding partial credit.

The ability to supplement, rather than replace, instructors is one of the biggest potential benefits of AI. “Eventually, this could not only reduce teachers’ grading time, but give them more insight on how to better teach concepts,” says Anderson.

Allay Faculty Fears of AI by Inviting Them to the Table

AI-driven assistants and predictive analytics are familiar, but when it comes to emerging and yet-to-emerge applications, both educators and IT pros may be challenged to figure out how to integrate them into existing systems.

“Universities shouldn’t sensationalize AI,” says Fendley. “If you can get past the shock and normalize what AI can be on your campus, it will go a long way in helping you talk about AI and doing positive things with it.” Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern University president and author of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, says AI could prove to be a valuable support tool if faculty and curriculum development experts have a voice in its adoption

“We will need to re-envision the curriculum, invest in experiential education and put lifelong learning at the heart of what we do,” Aoun says. “AI can serve as an enabler … so that teachers will have more time to devote to helping students integrate their learning.”

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