Feb 13 2020

IT Trends to Watch as Higher Education Moves into a New Decade

Get ready for digital transformation, artificial intelligence and data privacy to gain speed and maturity in the months ahead.

With the new year — and a new decade — underway, three key trends will continue to take hold in higher education.

The conversation about digital transformation is shifting from “What is it?” to “How do we do it?” Campus leaders are rethinking the user experience in response to competition, financial pressure and a growing expectation that technology be optimized to improve education, boost productivity and simplify operations.

As part of that quest, artificial intelligence is emerging as a multipurpose timesaver. AI-driven chatbots field questions about classes, admissions and help desk support. Other AI-powered applications enhance learning and help faculty develop more engaging lessons.

Meanwhile, privacy is in the spotlight, in part due to growing consumer awareness and new privacy laws. In 2019, just one year after its debut on the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues list, privacy jumped to No. 2, and chief privacy officer roles are starting to appear on campuses.

EdTech spoke with six experts about these trends and how to embrace them this year.

Higher Ed Tech Trend #1: Digital Transformation

Digital transformation projects range widely, from digitizing paper processes to installing smart devices throughout a library so patrons can summon staff assistance.

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Vice President and CIO Curtis A. Carver Jr. has led a successful digital transformation effort by changing the IT culture, engaging stakeholders and pursuing technology projects, big and small, that delight users. “Our goal is to deliver more than 100 wins a year, where we improve the lives of our customers in some way,” he says.

On his first day as CIO, Carver launched a crowdsourcing website and invited faculty, staff and students to brainstorm potential initiatives. With those ideas, he developed a four-year strategic plan for larger projects, such as network upgrades and a new Voice over IP system.

But he also produced quick wins. Within months, he provided unlimited email through Office 365 and unlimited storage through Box, so users can work unfettered without wasting time managing email or storage limits.

“It was insane. We have high-paid Ph.D.s and medical doctors working to solve cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, and IT’s email quota blocked them from sending email,” Carver recalls.

He also streamlined grade submissions. Previously, faculty computed grades on the learning management ­system and manually added them to the student information system.

Curtis Carver, University of Alabama Birmingham

Carver’s team integrated the two apps, so faculty can transfer grades with the push of a button. “It took all the stress out,” he says. “It turned a two-hour process into a 15-second process and made it 100 ­percent accurate.”

Today, the crowdsourcing website continues to generate ideas, and Carver and his team have produced 400 technology wins, including a simplification of password management policies that’s both easier and more secure.

To lead change successfully, Carver says, IT departments must give users a voice, embracing a shared governance model in which stakeholders participate in changing business processes and designing new systems.

“Our digital transformation has not been engineered in an ivory tower but by embracing the energy and the intellect of the community,” he says.

At California State University, Fresno, digital transformation is so important that in early 2019, the university established a department to lead those efforts, says Max Tsai, the coordinator for digital transformation.

Tsai and his team have deployed 120 connected devices throughout the library that allow patrons to press a button for assistance. Fresno State has adopted digital signatures, which speeds workflow. In May, the university will launch a “digital diploma” pilot, which will use blockchain to create transcripts that students can share with potential employers.

Like Carver, Tsai emphasizes stakeholder involvement. “We have a lot of conversations with students and staff about their current challenges and what they want,” he says. “We identify the most high-impact and pressing needs and work to solve them.”

Higher Ed Tech Trend #2: Artificial Intelligence

In 2020, colleges will continue to explore cutting-edge AI applications as part of their efforts to improve student learning, performance and retention, says Jennifer Sparrow, associate vice president for Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State University.

At Penn State, data scientists developed an AI application, LIFT, that analyzes students’ grades to predict performance in upcoming courses. When the app determines that students may struggle in a particular class, advisers can suggest resources, such as tutoring, says Bart Pursel, assistant director of innovation for the initiative.

UAB piloted AI-powered chatbots that answer FAQs for students and is now expanding them to faculty and researchers, while an AI-powered application analyzes measures of performance such as attendance and grades. If students are doing well, the app automatically sends a congratulatory email from the instructor. If students are struggling, the system sends an email asking if they need help.

“With the student advising system, we are seeing a rise in graduating progression and retention, and we think AI is a contributor,” says Carver.

Jennifer Sparrow, Penn State

Meanwhile, Fresno State deployed an AI-driven chatbot for online courses that helps to provide a personalized, adaptive learning experience. When students take an assessment, for example, the virtual assistant provides instant feedback, identifying topics for further study and recommending reading materials, Tsai says.

He envisions a future where AI-powered apps will monitor traffic and parking conditions and alert students who live off campus when they should leave home to get to class on time. When students arrive, apps will tell them which parking lots are full and direct them to empty spaces. Such apps, which would combine SIS information, such as class schedules, with student location data, would only be feasible if students allow their smartphone locations to be tracked, Tsai notes.

AI, combined with data collection, raises questions about ethics and privacy, so experts in those areas should be part of discussions, says Sparrow. For example, if the same course is taught by multiple instructors, should an adviser guide a student to the instructor who could deliver the highest predicted grade? If a female student in computer science is predicted to do poorly, is the university perpetuating a stereotype or bias if the adviser recommends a different major?

Another concern is whether apps like LIFT inadvertently create students who don’t know how to bounce back from failure, Pursel says.

“The university centers a large number of decisions on GPA because of scholarships and entrance to majors, but we also know that some of our best learning experiences are in challenging classes we may do poorly in,” he says.

With these issues in mind, the team sought advice from ethics f­aculty and consulted with Penn State’s privacy officer before launching the app.

“LIFT is a pilot project, providing a catalyst for many conversations around campus on the use of student data and AI,” he says. “In the future, we hope to more directly engage students in these discussions, so they have a voice in how their data is being used to support student success.”

Higher Ed Tech Trend #3: Data Privacy

Colleges initially viewed privacy through a compliance lens, driven by legislation such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. In 2020, conversations will shift from a regulatory focus to the ethical use of data, says Brian Kelly, director of the cybersecurity program at EDUCAUSE.

As universities mature infrastructure and processes around compliance, they have begun to think about the collection and use of unregulated data for analytics-based initiatives, he says — for example, using location data from students’ smartphones to gain insight into academic performance.

Data on how often students attend class, eat in the cafeteria or visit the library could yield valuable insights, but institutions must be transparent about the type of data they collect, explain the motives and get appropriate buy-in, Kelly says.

“There is a privacy and ethical use conversation starting to happen,” he says. Doug Welch, chief privacy officer at Baylor University in Texas, agrees, saying transparency and opt-in choices are critical.

Doug Welch, Baylor University

Welch became chief privacy officer two years ago, charged with developing a campuswide privacy strategy and ensuring Baylor was prepared for GDPR. Part of that work involved partnering with campus leaders who were already managing privacy under mandates such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and HIPAA.

Baylor now has a privacy committee that meets quarterly. Welch also identified 20 units across campus — those with the most personally identifiable information — and spent three months conducting a baseline privacy assessment and measuring risk. In doing so, he filled in a picture of what data the university collects; how the data is used, shared and stored; who has access; and how access is determined.

The assessment helped him figure out which areas to prioritize. He tackled HIPAA compliance first, ensuring Baylor has the right systems, policies and procedures in place. Next, he’ll work on data records management — what to keep and what to delete.

“The idea is to ensure that we only keep data for as long as we need it or as long as the law requires it, and then we get rid of it, so we don’t get hacked or inadvertently release it,” he says.

As for the new California Consumer Protection Act that went into effect on Jan. 1, Baylor is exempt from the law because it’s a not-for-profit college. But the university will create a provision in its contracts with third-party vendors to ensure they comply with all privacy laws, including California’s, Welch says.

ILLUSTRATIONS By HARRY CAMPBELL