Incredible advances in technology in recent years have enabled organizations to connect with and serve stakeholders in new and increasingly efficient ways. This includes leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbot technologies to revolutionize higher education operations, offering many benefits to institutions and their various stakeholders.
In the past few years, we have seen higher education institutions hone their competitive edge by harnessing AI capabilities to increase efficiencies, make data-driven decisions, improve student support, create personalized learning experiences and increase inclusivity in learning. Below, we explore areas where higher education institutions have taken advantage of such technology and the associated benefits.
AI Can Improve Operational Efficiency
The education programs that define colleges and universities would not be possible without sizable and complex back-office structures, the magnitude of which is hard to grasp without intimate knowledge of university operations. From recruitment to research services, human resources to legal, and finance to facilities, there are numerous behind-the-scenes processes in place to ensure faculty and students have a positive, seamless experience. Administrative processes, especially those lacking automation and modernization, can be fraught with inefficiencies, delays and human errors that have the potential to negatively impact the college’s financials and faculty and student experiences.
There are multiple use cases for how AI has helped colleges and universities increase efficiency and decrease costs related to back-office functions. These include:
Improving Recruitment and Retention Efforts
College recruitment and enrollment efforts can be costly, challenging and inefficient. To address these inefficiencies, many colleges and universities are leveraging AI to generate models that target potential students based on specific criteria and demographic characteristics. These solutions allow schools to identify, collect and analyze relevant data to isolate and recruit students with the highest likelihood of attending, which has helped schools save countless hours and dollars related to analyzing data and contacting prospective students with little to no chance of matriculating. As a result, schools have increased enrollment (or at least the related yield) and decreased recruiting costs.
Similarly, using AI chatbots has been shown to help significantly decrease “summer melt,” which is when students admitted to a school fail to matriculate for the upcoming year. Studies show that the need to jump through administrative hoops is an important driver of such decisions for newly admitted students.
In recent years, some institutions have utilized AI chatbots to reduce the melt. After introducing a chatbot in 2016, one such institution saw a 22% decrease in summer melt by 2020. The university partnered with a student engagement platform to develop and implement a smart text messaging capability available 24/7 to answer questions regarding admissions and enrollment, financial aid applications, placement exams and class registration. The chatbot even reaches out to students via text when they have not completed tasks by certain dates.
Identifying and Targeting Key Donors
Higher education institutions can automate and optimize their fundraising practices to engage alumni and donors more effectively. By studying donor history and preferences, AI algorithms can predict the likelihood of future giving. These predictions can then be used to group donors and tailor communication and fundraising strategies accordingly.
In addition, AI can segment prospects or donor data based on similarities such as geography, age, major in college, graduation year and other factors. This can help customize fundraising strategies to better engage and retain donors. Higher education institutions can also tap into AI language generation models such as ChatGPT to generate emails, thank you or stewardship letters, fundraising ideas and proposals.
Improving Facilities Operations Through Data-Driven Decisions
Big data is also adding value by helping universities make decisions that optimize costs. At one university, a water irrigation program coordinator reduced the time spent managing sprinkler systems from eight hours to only 30 minutes daily. Moreover, this university saves $1 million each year from decreasing water usage from 176 million gallons to 35 million. How was this achieved? None other than AI: the university invested in an automated water landscaping system that processes data and decides how to manage the campus’s water irrigation. With the help of AI, the water irrigation program coordinator and his team can “identify problems and make changes very quickly.”
Predictive Analytics Can Offer Tailored Student Support and Communications
With the decline in college enrollment and graduation, it is imperative that schools think of innovative ways to support and retain their students. AI has great potential to improve the student experience. And while AI chatbots will never completely replace person-to-person interaction, they can do wonders to fill the gap. AI’s capabilities can provide individualized support to students, identify those who are at risk and make for a more inclusive environment.
Personalizing Learning Experiences
One of the most promising aspects of AI in higher education is its potential to customize learning for each student. By analyzing data on individual learning styles, preferences and progress, AI can tailor educational content to create individualized educational experiences for all students.
A college-level AI teaching assistant named Jill Watson demonstrates this unique capacity. In an online course, Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence, Professor Ashok Goel used Jill to respond to about 100,000 questions that students posted on the class forum. By doing so, Jill helped the professor achieve “personal attention at scale,” reaching more students than would have been feasible with only human aid.
Another institution is also taking advantage of AI technology to create a personalized learning experience. This school partnered with IBM Research to build a virtual environment in which students can learn and practice Mandarin. With the computational architecture in place, the school launched the course, “AI-Assisted Immersive Chinese.” In the digitized language immersion experience, students learn Chinese by interacting with computer-generated characters and receiving feedback from them.
These projects demonstrate the future of education, one in which students can have deeper understanding of material and greater satisfaction with learning outcomes. The possibilities are endless.
Identifying At-Risk Students
A public research university is using behavioral intelligence and predictive AI – with a 10-year dataset of student records – to improve student retention, provide support and predict performance outcomes. In one instance, a student realigned his academic goals after a computer program notified his academic advisor that the student’s B-average GPA was not likely to sustain him in the school’s Nursing Program. So, his advisor helped him shift toward another major of interest in which he would stay on track to graduate.
This university has even developed and implemented engagement campaigns supported via text messaging. These campaigns target students to remind and encourage them to participate in academic activities and instruction that may add to their academic success, non-classroom activities of potential interest and administrative processes and deadlines that could impact their education.
Making Learning Accessible and Inclusive
AI and chatbots provide higher education institutions with the opportunity to enhance their accessibility and inclusivity. AI-powered tools can serve students with various needs by providing additional support: speech-to-text, text-to-speech, visual representations and many other adaptive technologies.
At another public research university, students can receive assistive technology resources to make learning more accessible. The Student Disability Resource Center’s Assistive Technology Lab offers various tools to assist students with disabilities ranging from hearing or visual impairments to learning challenges. This includes note taking and recording apps, speech-to-text tools, and text-to-speech technologies. The center also works with instructors to create an inclusive learning environment, such as guidance on using “Blackboard Ally,” which creates alternative versions of content to make it more accessible according to the way each student learns.
As AI technologies continue to evolve, educational institutions need to acknowledge, understand and, as they see fit, leverage the capabilities of AI and chatbots to improve the student experience. By doing so, schools can create more efficient, engaging and inclusive learning environments, position themselves at the forefront of educational innovation and better prepare students for the future. Investing in students’ educational experiences is an investment in the future.