Artificial Intelligence: Hero Or Villain For Higher Education?

via Forbes

There’s often a fine line between hero and villain, and by most accounts, artificial intelligence (AI) is on the villain side, sucking jobs out of the economy. These days you can’t throw a rock without hitting some pundit prognosticating on the millions of jobs that will be lost from AI. One oft-cited Oxford University study predicted 47% of jobs are in jeopardy.

But while AI conjures up robots and dystopian science fiction movies, it isn’t magic. Today’s AI consists of algorithms developed with “training data” that improve over time, otherwise known as machine learning. The result is better pattern recognition, as when Google seems to predict what you’re searching for after typing a few letters. What it ultimately means is automation of the information economy in the same way that the industrial revolution changed manufacturing. Any job that involves processing or manipulating information in a repeatable or even predictable way is a job that probably will be automated by AI and its kissing cousin robotic process automation (“RPA”).

Colleges and universities have lots of jobs like this. Not in the classroom, mind you; teaching and learning have a relatively low level of repeatability. But keep in mind that only $0.21 out of every tuition dollar is actually spent on instruction. That leaves a lot of repeatable processes that AI will automate. Nevertheless, what we’re seeing so far suggests predictions of massive job losses in higher education are overblown.

An article last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education focused on how UT Austin is utilizing AI to monitor and adjust landscape sprinkler systems. The entirely uncontroversial result is not job cuts, but rather a huge improvement in water conservation and concomitant cost savings. Then there’s admissions. Reviewing college applications is a highly repeatable process, particularly at the top of the admissions funnel. University of Arizona’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions has commented that AI won’t be used to “count anybody out automatically,” but will rather “help to enhance” the admissions staff make good matches. No mention of any plans to reduce admissions staff.

When it comes to interacting with students, we’re seeing a similar pattern: AI isn’t displacing workers, but rather enhancing student experience by filling current gaps in the service offering. In the enrollment and financial aid processes, the Chronicle profiled Georgia State’s use of AI chatbot AdmitHub (a University Ventures portfolio company) to respond to enrollment and financial aid questions. Tim Renick, GSU’s dynamic VP for Enrollment Management and Student Success, says that in the run-up to the start of each semester, his team can receive as many as 2,000 calls a day. That’s volume GSU cannot handle: “We’re not American Express. We don’t have a call center with 200 people.” AdmitHub’s chatbot allows students to ask any question at all hours. The technology takes a statistical approach to responding to questions. If it’s less than 95% certain of the answer, it connects the student to a human staff member. As you might expect, AdmitHub gets smarter with each question. In its first summer at GSU, AdmitHub answered 200,000 questions and successfully reduced summer melt by 20%.

In addition, AdmitHub founder Drew Magliozzi points out that by addressing simple questions, AI technology integrated into college systems can trigger a staff member to reach out for a human-to-human conversation: “The death of a parent, financial struggles, depression, and many other challenges require time and care. These conversations are the reason most got into the field in the first place. And thanks to the AI, they can talk to a student for an hour without worrying their inbox will be overflowing when they’re done.”

Another area of great promise is the online discussion board. Anyone who’s been in an online discussion for a large lecture course will tell you they’re unproductive and tedious at the best of times. Neither faculty nor teaching assistants are incentivized or able to provide the requisite level of structure, guidance, and feedback to keep every thread moving towards a productive educational outcome. That’s where Packback Questions comes in. Packback (a University Ventures portfolio company) is an AI-powered tool that picks up where the humanoids leave off. Its algorithms coach students to improve responses and to ask more thought-provoking questions, sparking better discussion and critical thinking. Packback also provides recommendations to faculty on how to further improve student engagement.


It seems likely that students will find themselves engaging with more bots. Georgia State has now enrolled students who are wondering “Where did the chatbot go? I still want to ask it questions.” Across town at Georgia Tech, one faculty member has already utilized a bot (“Jill Watson”) as a teaching assistant without telling students. Said the faculty member, “I don’t intend to put myself out of business. I think of this as improving teaching quality… [not] decreasing teaching quantity.”

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