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Let’s stop calling everything AI: What automation in higher ed looks like today

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Brian Kathman, CEO of Signal Vine, presents on nudge technology at a Seamless Transfer Pathways design session

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In our work with  colleges and universities, we’ve been hearing more and more that institutions need effective and more scalable solutions for communicating with their students.  In our Seamless Pathway Challenge, we looked at “chat bots”, and worked with Brian Kathman, CEO of Signal Vine. So, we asked him to help innovators think through the hype, to talk about what automation solutions are available to schools today vs. the future of automation and/or AI.  (Signal Vine is a software company that provides a two-way intelligent text messaging platform for higher education institutions; they specialize in personalizing communication at scale.)

In Brian Kathman’s worldview, true artificial intelligence, where the software is learning and changing as it goes, is much more a promise than reality.

So, what is possible, today?
Today’s possibilities really riff off of the less sexy capabilities of data analytics. Through utilizing innovative predictive analytic software, higher ed institutions can sift through huge data banks to analyze patterns and find correlations. Automated communications allows institutions to leverage predictive analytics to engage in targeted messaging or conversations with specific students or groups of students, based on a variety of criteria.

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So, by and large- institutions aren’t actually utilizing artificial intelligence in communications with students. Why? Kathman says any sort of ai solution that’s available now-like IBM’s Watson-would cost millions of dollars and require “a whole lot” of customization.

Still, there are many institutions doing some pretty cool things with automated communications. Some examples of what’s possible:

 Enhancing Institution-Wide Communication Using Blended Communications; Community Colleges of Vermont (CCV)
CCV utilizes Signal Vine’s Blended Messaging feature to target students with automated text message “nudges” that prompt students to complete important tasks. This allows CCV staff (who serve 7,000 students across 12 campuses), more time to focus on the students who most need help.

Using Amazon Alexa to Increase Student Engagement; Saint Louis University (SLU)
This fall, SLU will provide 2,300 Amazon Echo Dot devices to their students. Each device will be pre-programmed to answer SLU-specific questions like “What time is the library open until?” or “Where is the registrar’s office?”. The goal of this initiative is to increase student engagement through improving the ease of access to information.

Alleviating Summer Melt; Georgia State University (GSU)
You can’t have a conversation about success with automation in higher education without mentioning GSU’s POUNCE, an AdmitHub chatbot designed to assist first year students with enrollment and financial aid information through a texting platform. In POUNCE’s first pilot summer, GSU enjoyed a 21.4% reduction in summer melt, and a 3.9% increase in enrollment. If you’re interested in learning more about the research around summer melt, read Signal Vine and Harvard University’s seminal report here.

Improving Retention and Graduation Rates; University of South Florida (USF)
When USF hit a plateau in improving student retention and graduation rates, they turned to predictive analytics to help them understand where they needed to focus their attention. They found the answer in having access to real time data. “Instead of having time stamped data from multiple sources to manually analyze and interpret, the Civitas Learning platform provided real-time actionable data that took into account dozens of factors plus class attendance and performance. If a student starts to slip, the system flags them immediately – no waiting for mid-term grades (which might be too late) to determine if a student needs extra support.”

Supporting Transfer Students with a Mobile App; George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)
VANCE is a prototyped mobile app concept designed by faculty, students, and administrators of both schools during the Seamless Transfer Pathways Design Challenge that would provide 24/7 personalized support to students transferring from NOVA to George Mason University. The concept would overlay on ADVANCE, the ground-breaking entity now piloting between the two universities as a new seamless, holistic service model for 2+2 students (two years to Associates degree + two years to bachelor’s) who sign up for bachelor’s attainment.

Will we see true AI software in higher ed in our lifetime?
Probably. For now, AI technologies exist, but just aren’t ready for primetime (at scale use). Kathman thinks AI could become a commonplace reality in 5-10 years, but does caution those who choose to adopt more and more heavily automated solutions: “How much do we want the analytics and the automation to take over the student experience?…That’s the real question that everyone’s trying to figure out right now. Where do I put the automation in my system to take work off my staff, help the student find information more quickly, get the support they need, and be more responsive—without making the student feel like they’re being ‘handed-off’ and not being given the personalized attention they need? In order to be successful in higher ed, AI will have to augment student experiences not replace people.