Jul 18 2019

AI Has Potential to Ease Campus Budget Burdens

By delegating a broad range of tasks to artificial intelligence systems, colleges may free staff for higher-level engagement.

Campus applications of artificial intelligence may seem to be far in the future. But that’s changing. Colleges across the country are experimenting with AI in a variety of ways. 

Their successes are encouraging, as is the fact that AI is limited only by our imagination. Emerging technologies invite all of us to be active influencers and participants in their evolution

Recently, I heard a colleague discuss technology innovations as a solution to a pervasive problem in higher education: We too often turn senior faculty and administrators into well-paid typists. 

He exaggerated to make the point, but it’s a good one. By failing to find expedient, cost-effective ways to accomplish the rote tasks that support their higher-level work, we effectively waste their vast experience (and high salaries) on data entry. 

That’s one area where AI can make a difference, as a 2018 Learning House report emphasizes. “Artificial Intelligence in Higher Education” identifies student acquisition, learning and instruction, student affairs, and institutional efficiency as areas where AI solutions could substantially benefit universities. 

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more attainable in every sector of the economy, and higher education is no exception,” the report’s authors state. “AI opens up the possibility for higher education services to become scalable at an unprecedented rate, both inside and outside the classroom.” 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how universities use AI to boost student graduation rates.

AI Chatbots Answer FAQs to Alleviate Burden on Campus Staff

Learning House defines AI systems as being responsive, decisive, adaptive and independent. These qualities are what make AI so promising as institutions struggle to remake themselves for the modern age in the face of competition, public scrutiny, demographic shifts and budget constraints. 

Could AI be the magic solution to all these challenges? Maybe not — but then again, why not? As we’re starting to see, AI facilitates many of the improvements that campus leaders seek: personalized instruction, timely and targeted academic interventions, efficiencies that allow faculty to devote more time to meaningful engagement with learners.

Consider chatbots, which I’d argue are firmly past the early adoption stage. Chatbots already proved their worth in a variety of administrative tasks, such as answering FAQs from prospective students

Learning House’s report highlights Georgia State University’s chatbot Pounce, a personal assistant to facilitate students’ post-admissions enrollment. 

Pounce’s effectiveness is hard to argue with. It answered 99 percent of students’ questions, earned a four- or five-star rating from 80 percent of users and helped to decrease summer melt by more than 21 percent — all without putting an additional burden on staff.


AI Supports Personalized Learning Aims of Higher Education Leaders

Emerging AI applications step in to help faculty, assisting with grading, leveraging facial recognition software to help instructors understand when students are truly engaged (or not) in the classroom and monitoring students’ online discussion boards to assess and improve interactions.

Other applications help institutions personalize student services, moving us closer to the highly individualized experience that colleges would love to give every student, if resources were unlimited. 

AI makes that goal more achievable. AI also supports personalized tutoring, video captioning to make course content more accessible and smart assistants with knowledge bases specific to their institutions.

One tool, Stellic, was created by Carnegie Mellon University undergrads who saw room to improve their own degree-planning experience. It reimagines degree planning as a data-driven, customized support that helps students and their advisers manage the academic journey in real time.

On a larger scale, AI can support institutional efficiencies. Stellic, for example, can help planners more accurately determine demand for specific courses, which translates to a better student experience and more accurate financial forecasting. 

That’s a great example of a case where AI can help leaders refine all levels of operations, in ways that satisfy multiple stakeholders.

AI is here, and I commend the curious, entrepreneurial streak that is inspiring institutions like Georgia State, Elon University, the University of Michigan, the University of St. Thomas, Saint Louis University and others mentioned in Learning House’s report to embrace it. 

Rather than waiting to see how AI evolves in higher education, these leaders are helping to create the answer themselves — much to the benefit of their students and the rest of our community.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.


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