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An AI in higher education update

Innovative tertiary education providers are using artificial intelligence to attract and retain more students.

In today’s always-on, always-connected world, people expect to be able to access all kinds of information and services with a few taps on their mobile device. This is particularly true of the younger generation, who never knew a world without the Internet.

Students of all ages naturally demand the same ease of interaction with their universities and other tertiary education providers. They don’t want to be restricted to office hours; they want at least one touchpoint they can access in the evenings, on weekends and even in the middle of the night.

Tertiary education providers can meet some of these needs by enabling students to complete certain tasks online, like registering for courses and submitting assignments. However, this kind of digital functionality may not always help students with specific problems or questions and does not make them feel engaged with the provider. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in.

Increasing service while controlling costs

Tertiary education providers can apply AI technologies in every facet of the student’s interactions with them. For example, leading universities are experimenting with chatbots that can respond to enquiries about enrolments, course inclusions and subject prerequisites. In these settings, the ‘bot’ is programmed to deliver responses to frequently asked questions, and can understand those questions by interpreting human speech or writing.

In addition to enabling institutions to answer relatively complex queries around the clock, by powering chatbots, AI can also reduce staff costs – or allow staff resources to be more effectively deployed. According to TechnologyOne’s General Manager Cloud, Paul James, around 70 per cent of a tertiary institution’s budget goes towards staff costs on average, which is also traditionally one of the most difficult areas in which to minimise spending. Coupled with constraints on government funding – including caps on student fees – these institutions have a tough time managing their annual budgets.

Overcoming attrition with machine learning

Another benefit of AI is computers’ increasing ability to ‘learn’ better response and solutions by analysing past questions and answers. This allows tertiary education providers to automate support for a broader range of topics over time, and for that support to become more nuanced, the more students access it.

In the US, for example, Georgia State University used AI to address ‘summer melt’ – where students accept a university place in summer but fail to show up for the autumn enrollment. The university first identified common obstacles to enrollment, such as finding suitable, affordable accommodation, and securing financial aid. It then used the combination of a new student portal and an AI-enhanced chatbot to answer thousands of questions from incoming students, who were accessing the support system. The chatbot, nicknamed Pounce, answered more than 200,000 online questions during the summer months. The result: a 22 per cent reduction in the university’s enrollment drop-off rate compared to the previous year. This translated to an additional 324 students turning up for class, who may have otherwise been lost to the university. Better still, the students typically couldn’t tell that the chatbot wasn’t a real human.

In Australia, Deakin University launched its intelligent virtual assistant app, Genie, in 2018. It uses a combination of chatbots, artificial intelligence, voice recognition and predictive analytics to help students keep on track, stay motivated and get the most out of Deakin’s support services. The app acts as a student’s personal assistant, and can remind them if they have an upcoming exam and need to study, because they haven’t touched their course material, for example.

Using AI to provide better support

Student retention has become a major issue for universities, and institutions are now analysing data to pinpoint when and why students are at risk of dropping out. In doing so, they are getting better at identifying family problems and personal issues such as depression, so they can provide support and assistance as soon as possible.

Tertiary education providers can identify these issues based on analysis of routine information – including how often students access their student management system, visit the library or submit assignments. AI algorithms then enable the tertiary institution to analyse this information and prompt engagement with troubled students, well before they are close to failing a course or dropping out. For example, the university can identify students who are a potential retention risk and proactively provide access to the extra services they need, such as tutoring, counselling, career advice or financial aid.

AI can also help tertiary education providers become more multicultural, globally-involved learning centres. Automated multilingual support systems make it easier for international students to communicate with their education institutions in their preferred language, giving them a competitive edge for attracting and welcoming overseas students.

For these reasons and more, it is imperative that education providers consider implementing AI applications that help them provide exceptional student support and stay relevant in a fiercely competitive market.

Embracing innovation to beat the competition

Tertiary institutions are often brilliant when it comes to innovating in research and education, but some are less so when they are innovating within their business.

However, if education providers are to remain relevant and competitive, they will need to focus on developing the right processes and technologies to meet students’ expectations.

To achieve this, each tertiary providers’ key decision makers must work together to agree on a suitable AI strategy for their institution. Those that do not take advantage of AI’s analytical and efficiency-driving capabilities will be at a severe, perhaps terminal, competitive disadvantage.

Mark Ellis is Industry Director – Education at ASX-listed enterprise software company TechnologyOne. Previously, he has held roles with other software and education providers, including Macquarie University.

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