I’ve practically grown up in the data, application, information, and tech industry. For over 18 years, I’ve worked with both small organizations and major corporations like Gartner and Nelnet. With Nelnet Campus Commerce, I’m proud to help our partners consider the impact future technology will have on higher education.
1. Meeting increasingly higher customer expectations
If you still remember the rotary phone, you’re very different from today’s “digital natives.” Today students have access to technology that is vastly more efficient. Some have smart speakers like Google Home or Amazon Alexa in their kitchen and bedroom. For the especially tech-savvy, thermostats, sprinklers, refrigerators, lights, and other home devices are connected by Wi-Fi and controlled by smartphones. They’re creating their own apps in high school—sometimes with augmented reality.
Generation Alpha—children born in 2010 (the same year Instagram and the iPad launched)—won’t see higher education tech as a “nice-to-have” bonus. They’ll expect the same technology they experience in their smart homes, cars, and communities to be in their classrooms too. As Mark McCulloch, director of information systems business affairs at University of Oregon, points out, “Universities must accommodate the new devices students bring to campus each year, and we must respect their preferences for how we communicate with them. Students prefer university apps that push notifications but will still read our email messages if the subject is relevant and the body is short.” McCulloch emphasizes the importance of getting permission before you text.
2. Scaling artificial intelligence to individualized learning
One of the most interesting developments in higher ed technology has been the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI). For example, a Georgia Tech professor was teaching an AI online class of 250 students from around the globe. Those students heavily utilized the active online forum, which received 10,000 messages at all hours based on their various time zones, with the majority of students asking similar questions in different ways.
At that level, how could any professor provide the questions and answers necessary to help each student succeed? Could personal student attention scale? Through a teaching assistant chatbot powered by IBM Watson and crafted and recrafted by the teaching team, the answer overwhelmingly became yes. The fun part is that the professor had the class fooled for several weeks thinking that “Jill Watson” (the IBM chatbot) was a real person.
3. Investing in higher education from the corporate sector
Intel has been a key player in designing smart stadiums for universities to create a better fan experience. In smart stadiums, fans can use apps to find open parking spaces, order concessions, and get through security lines faster. Such tech-infused stadiums serve as proof of concept for other educational uses—even the classroom itself.
Big companies like Oracle, Google, CDW, Cisco, and Microsoft are seeing opportunities on college campuses. They know that higher education has traditionally lagged behind in the technology sphere and needs to cover a lot of ground in the next decade. Major companies are able to test out tech infrastructures that they’ll eventually use in gyms, airports, and offices nationwide.
As UO’s McCulloch describes it, “Corporations do view us [higher education] as an untapped market, a last frontier.” The opportunities are there. Imagine heating and air-conditioning systems throughout campuses that automatically adjust to provide the most economic and comfortable spaces, campus laundry facilities that send notifications when a student’s laundry is dry, classrooms that automatically take attendance when students walk through the door, or buses that notify the teacher when students are running late because of traffic or mechanical issues. Companies (and even cities) are making big investments in technology—and colleges are at the center of it all.
4. Increasing college IT budgets to support new software
According to McCulloch, each spring thousands of new students experience the University of Oregon campus and what it’s like to be a “Duck” through virtual reality goggles. Students view and pay their bills online. A renewed focus on distance education and online classes resulted in a new office of curriculum designers and support staff for Canvas, the learning management system.
As McCulloch notes, “AI software promises to improve analytics, teaching, customer service, and student success. A truly dizzying array of software choices is available as a service in every boutique segment. Every SaaS we implement must be integrated in some way with our ERP, creating a new IT profession.”
The end result is that more employees are engaged in IT work supporting all this new software. And, McCulloch says, “Our VPs, faced with limited funding, are increasingly called upon to decide which technology investments to make to best serve our students.”
5. Feeding an ever-changing pipeline of opportunity
According to Simon J. Anderson, applied foresight consultant at Venture Foresight, “Creating a direct pipeline from education to opportunity is becoming far more difficult as the list of viable careers of tomorrow is changing as fast as the new tools and platforms educators have available to prepare their students for them.” Anderson emphasizes that it’s made more difficult as automation removes functions from the “humans only” pool of job skills, changing existing careers and creating entirely new careers as a result of new technology. “Reducing the growing disconnect between what skills students are leaving universities with and what is needed in the market should be the fundamental focus of educators and institutions in our fast-changing future,” he notes.
6. Leveraging big data and analytics
While analytics are being used to help focus recruiters’ attention on the most likely prospective students to persist to graduation, many universities are also using big data to pinpoint areas students are struggling in and intervene before it’s too late. Some examples of retention usage include the following:
- Dartmouth College created a smart app to predict GPA based on studying, sleep, exercise, and face-to-face interactions. This 10-week experiment ran in the background and didn’t require any manual input by the students.
- Temple University implemented a chatbot to lighten the customer call center’s load and improve the website experience. The chatbot has been a hit and answers common questions from current students, employees, and prospective students.
- Georgia State University deployed an AI program focused on identifying and stepping in early for at-risk students using 800 academic and 14 financial risk factors. The AI looks at how well students are doing in class, whether they’ve skipped class recently, or if a payment has been missed to identify students in need of instruction or advising.
7. Tackling privacy and security considerations
All of these changes make working in higher education right now an especially interesting and exciting time. However, there are some very big concerns to consider when integrating new technology on campus.
- Privacy. Where’s the line between providing personalized answers and unnerving a student with the amount of private information the university holds? As an example, McCulloch references Elana Zeide’s August 26, 2019, EDUCAUSE Review article, “AI in Higher Ed: Applications, Promise and Perils, and Ethical Questions.” He notes that “data mining using AI raises concerns not only about privacy but also about corporate influence and unintended results due to invisible, biased, and inaccurate logic or data.”
- Security. Having access to so much information is attractive, but it also creates the idea of “rainy day” information—collecting and keeping all information in case you need it later. But if personally identifiable information (PII) is not protected effectively, there are major risks to students and institutions. In some cases, the less information there is to protect, the better. Students expect a frictionless experience, and they expect campus technology to be secure. And the federal government both expects and requires PII protection through FERPA requirements.
Technology is always on the move. Keep an eye out for where you can start implementing smart technology now so you’ll be able to continue meeting and exceeding prospective students’ expectations. As Venture Foresight’s Anderson points out, the biggest opportunity and challenge will be to “directly connect the skills and knowledge students acquire in their programs to fulfilling and sustainable careers after graduation. And, how to do it at a cost and in a period of time that is justifiable for the increasingly ROI-savvy digital natives and for those already in the workforce that are forced to reskill to stay relevant in the market.”
Don Grauer is Regional Director, East, for Nelnet Campus Commerce.
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