Christopher Harrison, CTO, Nova Southeastern University
Over the last few years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been gaining momentum across all industries and all spectrums of the world from consumer solutions such as Siri and Alexa leveraging Machine Learning to disruptive technologies such as Uber and Lyft as well as social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter to the extreme side of quantum computing attempting to solve the world’s biggest and most complex issues and challenges.
Let’s consider for a minute Higher-Ed including private and public institutions either for-profit or non-profit undergoing significant challenges in attempting to attract, recruit and ultimately enroll students across the globe in a highly competitive environment including a consumer (student) who is more educated as far as options available thanks to the internet, social media and other factors. This compounded with unsustainable tuition increases performed by some institutions as well as increased educational policy changes and regulations, are creating a challenging landscape for post secondary institutions across the nation.
Universities and colleges have traditionally lagged behind the constant evolution and innovation of technology as compared with other industries and sectors. This has begun to change in particular driven by the current mainstream challenges and augmented with new generations such as Millenniums and iGen or Generation Z who have embedded in their DNA a digital world that Higher-Ed has yet to match and deliver on their expectations. This goes well beyond hyper-connectivity by which students expect to have 3-4 devices connected at all times (laptop, tablet, smartphone, smartwatch) and have information and systems connected at all times; it specifically refers to student’s overall experience that starts from the time they’ve shown initial interest as a lead, application, enrollment, entire academic program, on-campus activities, graduation and into an alumni role.
Within Higher-Ed, there are enormous untapped opportunities for product/services companies, administrators, educators, start-ups and technology professionals to begin embracing AI across the student-ecosystem and infuse innovation to traditional academic processes by leveraging disruptive technologies. Some of the potential areas with direct AI benefit to a student’s life-cycle are:
a) Recruitment – University’s marketing and public-facing websites can deliver a better initial experience to prospective students and parents by leveraging bot technology which allows intelligent agents to provide answers about the institution, financial-aid, programs, accreditation, admissions, enrollment process and other key questions fundamental for a potential student through an interactive experience.
b) Tuition and Financial Aid – This is arguably the most decisive factor for a student who wants to attend a particular college or university. Traditionally, it has been made a complex and at times bureaucratic process that overcomplicates a simple answer to the student around “How much will it cost for me to attend school” and “how much financial aid can I get based on a combined family income”. In addition to this hurdle, is the ability for a student to know if they are eligible for a particular grant or scholarship. All of this makes it very difficult for a student and parents (undergraduate degree-seekers) to understand their options. This is compounded with the fact that students and parents are now significantly savvier when it comes to selecting and applying to a particular college.
By leveraging AI through bots, institutions can deliver the answers to tuition cost, financial aid calculations, loan-type options as well as eligibility for grants and scholarships in an interactive, fun and informative manner. These tools can be delivered via many different channels including school’s web-sites, portals, microsites, mobile apps and others.
c) Enrollment Process – Nothing will ever replace the human-touch aspect of an educational professional interacting directly with a student; especially since the student has already made a conscious decision to pursue an education at a particular institution and is keen on beginning the educational journey.
However, there is a great opportunity by combining the power of AI and Big-Data in ways that has never done before. Again, by leveraging bots that can provide the answers to common enrollment questions as well as solutions and options as data is consumed from “Data Lakes” and new answers are been fed into the repositories, institutions can provide quicker and more efficient answers to student’s need and these “services” will become smarter over periods of time.
d) Student Support – A key service organization in any college or university that is student-facing is the student support group which provides front-end user support for common academic, campus and other similar types of issues. Usually, this is broken down by Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 levels of support depending on the complexity and severity of the issue.
A great opportunity exists in disrupting the traditional call-center model of support to students by implementing bots that are designed to provide quick and efficient answers 7x24x365 to students on basic issues and challenges. As the bots learn from the new questions and answers over periods of times, these can be leveraged across campuses, programs, on-line and other student segments.
e) Additional Opportunities – Besides the traditional student-centric processes, there are a number of areas that AI can directly benefit and transform the student’s experience specially for new freshmen undergraduate generations. Some of the potential opportunities are:
• Students can better manage their degree plan in a more intuitive and engaging way via a conversation with an AI bot and be able to make adjustments to their degree plan real-time and without the need to wait for an advisor and from your mobile device
• AI can help research institutions process large amounts of data and summarize key findings faster and in a more intuitive way (example: Google analytics bot)
• AI can drive dynamic learning scenarios to make more realistic learning simulations and identify if students are bored or struggling with course content
• AI can help to automate basic activities like grading
• AI could help adjust the student workspace by learning how they are using an application like their school’s Learning Management System
Overall, the opportunities to begin disrupting the traditional student-support and academic are enormous and will depend on institution’s appetite for radical transformation by leveraging disruptive technologies such as AI in a way that can fundamentally change how a future student interacts with a college or university. Only those institutions, product/services companies, administrators, educators, start-ups and technology professionals that are willing to embrace the future and embrace a shift in the direction, will be able to shine and stand out from the rest of the competition by delivering superior and transformative experiences to future student generations.