Rich Pushard, Product Portfolio Manager for Higher Education at CDW, addresses the future of artificial intelligence in higher education.

Oct 20 2023

EDUCAUSE 2023: How AI Could Impact Student Success in Higher Ed

Artificial intelligence can support adaptive learning, but institutions should be mindful of how data is used.

At the EDUCAUSE annual conference in Chicago, artificial intelligence was the topic of several sessions as IT leaders continue to wonder what’s next for this technology and how it will impact higher education in the future. The EDUCAUSE 2024 Top 10 placed AI in an honorary spot on the list at number 13, indicating its growing impact on higher ed.

“AI makes knowledge and expertise available in ways that they weren't in the past,” says Susan Grajek, vice president of partnerships, communities and research at EDUCAUSE. “It has the potential to help people skill up really rapidly. And because education is our predominant mission in higher education, it has real potential.”

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AI’s application in higher ed can span departments, from automating IT tasks to helping with administrative work. But it also has potential applications in teaching and learning. While many experts focus their AI insights and research on academic integrity, many of the EDUCAUSE sessions instead focused on the potential impact on student learning outcomes.

“Academic applications might include assessment reform,” Grajek says. “They might include developing course materials for introductory courses and tutoring.”

AI Supports Today’s Higher Education Landscape

In a session titled “The End of Business as Usual: Embracing Generative AI within Higher Ed,” Rich Pushard, product portfolio manager for higher education at CDW, gave a comprehensive overview of generative AI’s potential in higher ed.

Higher education institutions are adapting their course offerings to support the fourth Industrial Revolution, which places an emphasis on AI, automation and machine learning technologies. Producing graduates with marketable skills in these areas is vital for colleges and universities.

“If you think about professionals today, and you think about how technology changes, how do you support those learners who went through your institution?” Pushard said. “How do you reframe that investment proposition in a way that you're making sure they're equipped with the skills they need?”

EXPLORE: Learn more about how AI is impacting higher education.

The traditional academic experience of even a decade ago has changed, Pushard said. Students are embracing the flexibility that today’s institutions offer, and these institutions must adapt accordingly, in many cases supporting “just-in-time learning,” he said.

AI can support competency-based education models in which students are able to learn at their own pace, Pushard said. This individualized progression through classes helps personalize the learning experience and allows students to complete their education on their schedule.

“How do we make sure that we're engaging students to a level that not only creates success, but changes the nature of learning,” Pushard said. “If you think about how our courses are constructed right now, many people are getting new information from one source. AI has the capability of potentially putting many sources into one so you can individualize that learning experience via technology.” Many schools, such as Western Governors University, have adopted this model, he said.

AI Helps Enable Adaptive Learning

Analyzing the data from AI-enabled courses can help instructors identify patterns in student success and engagement. For example, Pushard said, if suddenly a group of year-three accounting students is doing poorly in an advanced class, data from their freshman year might reveal insights into why.

In curriculum development, this type of data analysis can help instructors modify their courses each semester rather than just rolling over the course content from one term to the next.

“You can understand what student progress looks like, what you can supplement accordingly, and take adaptive learning to an entirely different level where new resources are being infused into that student’s experience digitally based upon what that circumstance is,” Pushard said.

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Tools powered by AI can also support student success. Chatbots can answer student questions at any hour of the day, and individualized AI tutors can provide customized academic support based on each student’s progress in a given class.

Cybersecurity Should Be Top of Mind for IT Leaders Using AI Tools

As these tools grow in popularity and become more powerful in supporting learning, they are gathering large amounts of student data. Security becomes a concern as biometric data, such as keystroke patterns, is collected.

“You have the ability to capture that information,” Pushard said. “That information is potentially an identifier down the road. How do you make sure that you're leveraging it for your own security purposes so you're building in that extra safeguard level, but you're doing it in a way that you're not putting that information at risk?”

Learning analytics data can also carry biases based on things like student demographics and academic progress. However unintentional these biases are, Pushard said, institutions should be asking questions on how to move past them.

“How do you make sure that your understanding of that student’s circumstances and progression complements what AI can do from an adaptive perspective?” he said. “We need to not only be mindful of it but also sanity-check our development and our offerings to effectively be sure that we've eliminated bias to the extent that we can.”

Keep up with EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s coverage on our EDUCAUSE event page and via X (formerly Twitter).

Photography by Amy McIntosh

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