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How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Is Being Used in Higher Ed

artificial intelligence
(Image credit: iStock/Zapp2Photo)

From chatbots to discussion platforms, artificial intelligence (AI) is popping up at campuses all over the globe. In fact, the recent AI in Education Market Research Report from Research and Markets predicts that the global AI in education market will reach $25.7 billion in 2030, up from just $1.1 billion in 2019. 

The report shows that the largest demand for AI has been for learning platforms, mainly because of the increasing preference for remote and online education courses—even before the pandemic. It predicts that the next AI area to explode will be intelligent tutoring systems applications.

Chatbots to The Rescue

A chatbot is a computer program that imitates human conversation and continually learns from every conversation it has, improving the efficiency of its responses.

At Ocean County College in New Jersey, the enrollment services department was tired of sending emails that only gained a 10% engagement rate. To appeal to Gen Y’s demand for instant gratification and 24/7 availability, the college partnered with AdmitHub and launched Reggie the chatbot in November 2017. 

Reggie started with a knowledge base of 1,200 enrollment-related questions for prospective students, such as “How do I apply?” and “What is your mascot?” In its first year, Reggie answered 14,000 questions and more than doubled its knowledge base. In the second year, its engagement rate increased by 26% and it answered 98 percent of questions without having to forward any to a human.

The students love Reggie’s snarky personality. “He has an answer for everything,” says Sheenah Hartigan, director of enrollment services, including a favorite color, what he’s wearing, or if he wants to date. “Even if a student asks ‘Where can I get pizza?’ Reggie has an answer.”

Other Uses of AI

Several institutions use AI speech technology for remote learning. At UCLA and California State University (CSU), Chico, students suffering from Zoom call fatigue can use Otter for Education to turn spoken lectures into lecture notes. “Learning at CSU is evolving quickly due to the current environment,” says Jeremy Olguin, accessible technology manager at CSU. “With Otter’s technology, our faculty can capture and share lecture notes in real time with their students.”

Olguin and other administrators say that this type of AI has been extremely beneficial to students with learning and other disabilities who require academic accommodations.

Penn State and the University of California, Davis use the AI-powered Examity for online proctoring. Examity works with biometric keystroke analysis, predictive analytics, and video review to verify students’ identities and protect the integrity of exam content. 

“Ensuring that testing is secure, and learning is validated, is critical to fulfilling the promise of quality that students have come to expect from our programs,” says Meggan Levitt, associate vice provost of information and educational technology at UC Davis. 

Beefing Up Online Discussions

One of the newest ways AI is being used is to improve discussion platforms. 

Stephen Slice, an economics lecturer at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, teaches multiple classes of 90 to 120 students, making it pretty much impossible to grade ongoing writing assignments. In an effort to help students improve their written communication skills, he turned to online discussions but had little success until last year, when he discovered Packback, an AI-powered discussion platform. Its algorithm evaluates responses based on sentence structure and grammar, and monitors for uncivil discussions or comments. Each week, Slice gets an email from the platform that points out the best student responses for him to acknowledge. “I’ll write something like, ‘Good job!’ and the students always thank me for acknowledging what they’ve done,” says Slice.

Alec Cattell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of practice at Texas Tech University, agrees that Packback helps him to provide feedback. “It helps me identify excellent and problematic posts," Cattell says. "I don’t have to read every one but students feel like they are getting individual attention.”

Cattell says his college’s learning management system’s discussion forum is old-fashioned and not very engaging. Packback looks more like social media and lets students use avatars, which they enjoy.

“If a student’s post is flagged, the system does a little coaching to help the student learn how to rephrase the post, which further reduces the teacher’s time," Cattell says. "It really helps with digital literacy, reminding them to do research and include sources.”