As the world around us gets smarter, we increasingly expect more personalised experiences and collaborative services. This is particularly true of the younger generations, who have never known a world without the Internet, smartphones or apps. More and more, students are demanding the same ease of interaction with their universities as they would with online retailers or through social media.
In a progressively connected world, students’ interaction with their universities shouldn’t be restricted by office hours – what happens if they want access to information in the evenings or at weekends?
Universities can meet some of these needs by enabling students to register for courses online or submit assignments electronically. However, this kind of digital functionality may not always support students with specific problems or questions and certainly doesn’t help them to feel engaged. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in, the technology can enhance many university processes from course recommendations to administrative assistance and more.
Round the clock support
Unlike many other industries, the higher education sector has yet to be heavily influenced by AI, but the technology can be applied to various processes. Leading higher education institutions such as Leeds Beckett University are already experimenting with chatbot technology, in order to help students make suitable course choices. The technology can also be applied to other student interactions, for example responding to enquiries about enrolments, course inclusions and subject prerequisites. In these instances, the ‘bot’ is programmed to deliver responses to frequently asked questions, and can understand those questions by interpreting human speech or writing.
In addition to enabling institutions to answer relatively complex queries around the clock, AI can also reduce staff costs – or allow staff resources to be more effectively deployed. The technology can help universities to relieve the pressure on employees who routinely have to answer common queries. Implementing AI in this way allows staff members to manage more complex questions in person, or focus on other value-added activities. As a result, universities are able to do more with fewer people as well as providing a better student experience without having to hire additional staff.
By analysing past questions and answers, AI technologies also have the ability to ‘learn’ better responses and solutions. The machine learning component of AI not only allows universities to offer enhanced support but also provides them with the opportunity to increase automated support for a wider range of topics over time.
In the United States, Georgia State University used AI to address what it refers to as ‘summer melt’ – where students accept a university place in summer but fail to show up for the autumn enrolment. The university first identified the common obstacles to enrolment, such as finding suitable, affordable accommodation, and securing financial aid. It then used the combination of a new student portal and an AI-enhanced chatbot to answer thousands of questions from incoming students, who were accessing the support system 24/7 from their smart devices. The chatbot, nicknamed Pounce, answered more than 200,000 online questions during the summer months. The result: a 22 per cent reduction in the university’s enrolment drop-off rate compared to the previous year. This translated to an additional 324 students turning up for class, who may have otherwise been lost to the university. Better still, the students typically couldn’t tell that the chatbot wasn’t a real human.
Creating online communities
Year-on-year universities face stronger competition to attract students and higher education providers need to ensure that new applicants are offered experiences deliver real value. With a demand for more engaging online and mobile communications, universities should ensure that technology is implemented in a way that creates compelling interactions. From 24/7 support to chat groups, these initiatives can help to create a community which student’s feel they belong to and allows them to easily interact with course material, staff members and other students.
By facilitating and fostering these online communities and providing the services today’s learners expect, universities can more effectively attract and retain students. Additionally, AI can be used to analyse patterns in the data generated by online forums, allowing institutions to gain useful insights in order to proactively address student issues, minimising dropouts and failure rates.
Higher education institutions are often brilliant when it comes to innovating in research and education, but some are less so when they are innovating within their business. Trying something new always introduces a risk of missing the mark, but the potential benefits often tip the scale in favour of change. This era of start-ups and ‘disruption’ has shown that innovation-averse organisations are those most likely to fall by the wayside as their industries move forward without them.
Enhancing student retention
Student retention has become a major issue for universities, and institutions are now analysing data to pinpoint when and why students are at risk of dropping out. AI algorithms can be used to identify issues based on the analysis of routine information – including how often students access their student management system, visit the library or submit assignments. Spotting causes for concern allows universities to proactively engage with troubled students and offer support and assistance as soon as possible.
As well as increasing student retention rates, this helps universities to enhance student welfare by identifying problems and offering assistance earlier, rather than putting the onus on students to ask for help. It also enables institutions to provide early support for students with personal or mental health issues. AI can also help universities to become more multicultural as automated multilingual support systems make it easier for international students to communicate with their education institutions in their preferred language, giving them a competitive edge for attracting and welcoming overseas students.
Ultimately, if higher education providers are to remain relevant and competitive, they need to focus on developing the right processes and technologies to meet students’ expectations. To achieve this, key decision makers must work together to agree on a suitable AI strategy for their institution. In the next few years AI will be a critical factor in helping universities to remain competitive, not taking advantage of AI’s analytical and efficiency-driving capabilities could leave some education establishments at a severe competitive disadvantage.
Anwen Robinson, UK operating Officer, TechnologyOne
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