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5 Innovations In Tech That Are Transforming Higher Education

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Emerging Tech Development & Consulting: Artificial Intelligence. Advanced Analytics. Machine Learning. Big Data. Cloud

What the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns have shown is how ill-prepared the higher education system was for the challenge. Although 97% of universities and colleges have eventually switched to online or blended learning, their journeys weren’t smooth — 63% of students say the quality of instructions has worsened.

Now schools across the globe are rushing their digital transformation initiatives adopting educational technology solutions to make learning, and remote learning in particular, more efficient and personalized, possibly without spending a fortune on digitizing their operations.

But how do higher education institutions navigate educational innovations? And how can artificial intelligence, cloud computing, intelligent automation, and teleconferencing help schools achieve higher academic performance and drive revenue? Let’s dive in.

So, how do education and technology join up?

Technology can transform every aspect of how students, professors, and alumni interact and how campuses are running, easing the shift toward cheaper, more accessible, and more engaging education.

The key education technology use cases that make this shift happen are:

  • Student lifecycle management
  • Student engagement and motivation
  • Smart campus and smart dorm solutions
  • Assistive learning technology
  • Tech-assisted mental health interventions

Student lifecycle management (SLM)

With student lifecycle management software, universities and colleges can develop a data-driven approach to education, automate routine processes, and let students access educational resources anywhere, anytime. One of the biggest trends in educational technology, SLM software optimizes the entire student lifecycle, from prospecting and enrollment through creating a nurturing learning environment to graduation and alumni support.

Prospecting and enrollment

Doing their research about a university, applicants usually visit its website, go through the schools’ social media, weigh out alumni’s impressions, and only then submit an application. SLM solutions optimize the interaction between the potential students and the school at each of these touchpoints.

Data analytics and AI bring in robust insights to universities’ recruitment campaigns. The techs allow monitoring how effective a school’s marketing efforts are in real time to attract the best students.

Leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning in education allows processing myriads of social media data to uncover what students, alumni, and parents really think about your school. Competitive intelligence helps to compare a school’s academic performance and its attractiveness for potential applicants against other higher education institutions.

To speed up or even automate student enrollment, universities are widely adopting CRM software. CRMs foster application management at every stage — from application receipt and confirmation through analyzing if it meets the set requirements to routing the application for approval and claiming the final verdict.

Information and communication technologies in education also ignite the transition to more affordable subscription-based online learning (think: Netflix-style smart education platforms). Students would soon be able to browse through a school’s available programs, subscribe to the one they like, and connect a credit card for automatic monthly payments. A pioneer in subscription-based learning, Boise State University enrolls 3,500 fully online students a year, and almost every learner fully completes their credit commitment. Online students also pay 30% less in tuition fees.

Billing and accounting operations

Tech-savvy students of today expect their tuition and other payments to be handled smoothly and quickly, which calls for colleges to adopt billing and accounting technology for education. Such solutions usually feature an accounting portal for the administration and a mobile app for students. The students can use the app to conveniently pay tuition fees or make on-campus purchases, while the accounting portal allows centralized and swift payment processing.

The University of Wyoming, for example, used to send out their bills via the postal service with the help of a contractor who manually processed, printed, and mailed out the bills. It took approximately a week before the bills reached the students, which was slow and also rather costly. Today, however, the university uses e-billing software to automatically process thousands of bills, saving about $45,000 a year.

Curriculum personalization

With AI solutions for education, universities can tailor the learning process to a student’s academic achievements, background, interests, and inclinations. To empower academic success, AI analyzes tests, assignments, classroom participation notes, and other data to build a unique student profile and identify what makes the student engage and what causes struggles.

Based on the profile, AI provides tips on how educational materials can be tweaked. For example, AI can tell whether a particular student prefers listening, reading, or watching a video to take in information.

As a result, students start benefiting from a personalized learning environment; instructors use reports on students’ academic achievements to further improve the way they teach; curriculum and content designers get useful insight into content usage; college administrations tap in useful statistics on the school’s overall performance and the bottlenecks that may halt it.

On-campus communication

Key innovative technologies that make it easier for students to engage in campus experiences are chatbots and videoconferencing.

Chatbots provide immediate responses to student queries and solve many extra tasks, from helping navigate the campus to reminding about upcoming exams to sending out grades reports, and more. Georgia State University, for instance, has implemented a chatbot to help newly admitted students prepare for enrollment. Namely, the chatbot gives answers to the questions about financial aid and housing and helps freshmen register for classes. During the first month after the implementation, the chatbot exchanged about 50,000 texts, and less than 1% of students had to be routed to the university staff for further clarifications.

Video conferencing has become the key enabler of distant and blended learning, but the value this technology drives in education will endure after the pandemic as well. Conferencing apps may help professors make the learning process more engaging, enjoyable, and convenient. They could, for instance, invite subject-matter experts to hold video lectures or consult students via online office hours. Yale University, for example, uses videoconferencing to teach rare languages like Yoruba and Zulu with the students and the instructor being miles away from each other.

Smart campus

Putting educational innovations to use, universities can create next-gen campus infrastructures that meet the demand of today’s tech-savvy students. Smart campuses embrace technology applications that make up a connected infrastructure and create intuitive experiences for students, professors, prospects, and college administration.

Campus safety and security

Higher education institutions may leverage AI-powered CCTV cameras, biometric technology, and facial recognition to keep unauthorized people off-campus so that a student can get in a dorm only if they allow their fingerprints or facial features to be scanned by AI.

The same technology can be used to automatically track class attendance, identify absentees, or get real-time feedback about which parts of a class make students engage and which fail to arouse interest.

But as good as improved safety and automated tracking may sound, AI-powered surveillance and facial recognition cause fierce resistance among students and evoke debate about the moral implications of modern tech.

One way of alleviating the ethical concerns while improving security is recognizing violent behaviors and potential threats rather than facial features. Several startups like ZeroEyes and Athena claim to rely on such an approach in their safety and security solutions.

Smart dorm and recreation

To provide better services and drive cost savings, housing, dining, and recreation facilities can be digitized, too. For instance, relying on the data fetched from motion tracking sensors, smart lighting systems, and connected thermostats can automatically turn off the lights and lower room temperature when no one is around. The University of Arizona has already adopted smart college and campus technologies, but they have gone beyond standard use cases and also deployed a network of plumbing sensors to monitor water lines usage and prevent leaks.

When it comes to dining, techs drive student experience here as well. With technology integrated into dining services, students can conveniently look through the available menu options via a self-service kiosk or a mobile app, view nutrition information, and place an order.

Many higher education institutions also set up technology to provide for quality recreation. ASU has, too, implemented connected sensors to monitor weather, humidity, temperature, and noise levels inside the university’s sports arena.

Student engagement and motivation

To liven up the learning process, enhance student engagement, and maintain the sense of community despite the lockdown, colleges and universities have started leveraging smart learning environments, virtual tutors, and gamification.

Smart learning environments

By bringing whiteboards, 360-degree video tools, and augmented and virtual reality to education, colleges can create immersive learning experiences. Interactive whiteboards, for instance, allow more flexibility in content delivery, support file sharing, and provide simple access to the internet, engaging learners via multiple models of interaction.

AR and VR simulations help students grasp complex concepts, reconstruct historical events, engage in practical training, and more. San Diego State University, for instance, has already turned the power of VR in education to their benefit. The smart school uses VR headsets to teach astronomy and make students experience ideas that cannot be explained verbally via visual means.

And here’s an interesting use case of augmented reality in education. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has built an immersion lab with a 360-degree projection system that “transports” the school’s Mandarin learners to Chinese city streetscapes. Conversing with AI-powered avatars that recognize learners’ speech, gestures, and facial expressions, the students master Mandarin twice as fast as their fellows taught in conventional classrooms.

Virtual tutors

Virtual tutors are intelligent, AI-powered avatars one can converse with just like with a human. The behavior of a virtual tutor can be tailored to any task, from enhancing medical students training to facilitate foreign language practice. The avatars can even be trained to mimic a person with trauma to, say, act as a patient for psychology students.

Among the universities that have already adopted virtual teachers and tutors at the University of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education. The school uses an avatar named Kevin to enhance the learning experience for students majoring in teaching. Now the students perfect their tutoring and instructing skills talking to a virtual counterpart and already notice an increase in their professional confidence.

Gamified virtual campus solutions

Having switched to videoconferencing to enable distance learning, universities and colleges are now embracing gamification features and augmented reality apps for education to create virtual campuses.

Virtual campuses are interactive environments where students can meet, study, and chat. Just like in video games, a student uses their laptops’ keyboard and a microphone to walk around the campus and talk with other students or professors presented by digital avatars.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is one of the pioneers in adopting virtual campus technology. The environment they’ve built allows students to navigate the digital copy of the school’s campus, “teleport” from one room to the next and attend online classes with an instructor’s avatar on the virtual stage. In turn, the instructors can put students into private groups, hand out lecture notes, and more.

Assistive learning technology

In the US, every classroom includes students with special needs, and assistive learning innovations in education can make a difference to how they learn.

Writing assistance

Students struggling with literacy or those who want to boost their writing skills, for instance, can benefit from AI-powered spelling and grammar checks, word prediction, and automated text formatting. Apart from that, modern writing assistance tools, like Hemingway Editor, Ghotit, or Ginger, can evaluate the clarity and readability of texts and even provide tailored practice sessions based on the mistakes a student made in the past.

At the University of Michigan, for example, professors and students already use an AI-powered tool that analyzes students’ papers to let students take their writing skills a step further and help professors streamline grading.

Speech-to-text solutions

Speech-to-text software can assist students with special needs in communicating with their teachers and peers. Office 365 applications, for instance, feature an AI-based add-in that converts speech into text as a student speaks into a microphone. Another helpful tool is Microsoft’s Immersive Reader. The tool was designed specifically for students with dyslexia and dysgraphia and allows them to have any text read out loud, and even broken into syllables.

Tech for students with hearing and vision disabilities

Many apps and browsers today come with built-in screen magnifiers, high contrast mode, dictation, and audiovisual assistants that can read the contents of a web page out loud. For the students who need Braille support, colleges and universities can leverage Braille keyboards to improve the learning experience even further.

And students with hearing difficulties can benefit from videoconferencing tools with built-in captioning, sound-field systems, as well as FM systems — wireless devices that transmit sounds directly to a hearing aid and help students communicate even in a noisy environment.

Technology-assisted mental health interventions

In the US, one in three college students reports having some kind of mental health disorder. In addition to offering individual and group therapy, universities can promote the use of tech like mobile apps and chatbots to expand their mental health care to the students who are reluctant to turn to in-person services.

Mental health apps relying on cognitive behavioral therapy, for instance, have proven effective in alleviating anxiety, depression, and stress levels. Such apps can also analyze data from a mobile phone’s built-in sensors or wearables to reveal changes in students’ behavior patterns and provide tips on how to prevent worsening of the revealed mental health conditions.

Mobile apps and chatbots help freshmen adjust to college, too. Offering personalized exercises and daily activities, the chatbots help build up resilience and increase well-being. The University of Michigan, for example, uses a similar bot that allows students to take a survey and get tailored resources to boost their mental health.

Overcoming top challenges of implementing educational technology

Innovative in every possible field but paradoxically conservative when it comes to redesigning their own structures, higher education institutions have to battle many challenges on their way to digital transformation. The ones that need special attention are:

Overcoming the digital divide

Although many students have successfully switched to online learning and already enjoy the improvements brought by technology, there are millions who are deprived of basic facilities like network connectivity and cannot access educational resources online. As the problem is multi-faceted, it can hardly be resolved by higher education institutions alone. Rather, the solution should be a product of collaborative effort. Governments, nonprofit organizations, educational institutes, and education technology companies should team up to provide access to the internet for low-income families, for instance, via non-commercial community networks and community technology centers.

Dedicating to continuous improvement

Innovation for its own sake makes little difference. To uncover the full potential of technology in education, colleges and universities should adopt tech wisely and, once they have built their IT infrastructures, continuously test and improve them. And to further improve the overall learning experience, enhance operations, and uncover new revenue streams, it is worth dedicating effort to research and development and tapping into new business models that are enabled by technology.

Preventing cyberattacks

After transitioning to distant learning and amplifying their IT infrastructures with new services, more higher education institutions fall victim to cyberattacks. The University of California, for instance, had to pay $1 million in ransom after their internal system was breached and the University of Utah lost over $400,000. To prevent cyberattacks, higher education institutions need to build security in their IT environments by design, regularly assess security risks and develop mitigation procedures, design security guidelines, and encourage professors, students, and university administration to closely follow them.

Settling moral implications.

As far as next-gen technologies like AI, smart monitoring, or intelligent automation are concerned, the ethical implications of their adoption should be carefully thought out. As both students and professors may object to digital transformation (the former are often afraid that their role will diminish as AI infiltrates education; the latter disapprove of being monitored and expect technology to surpass their freedoms). To alleviate ethical issues, colleges and universities must use technology responsibly and focus on explainability — that is make sure to inform all parties about how digital solutions would impact the learning process, how they make decisions (if AI is in use), and which data they need to do so.

The takeaways

Technologies are shaping the future of higher education, and many higher education institutions have already tapped into digital transformation — whether to make education more accessible and fun, improve daily operations, or drive cost savings. But no matter the goals, colleges, and universities should not underestimate the importance of thorough planning. It is with a thought-out digital transformation strategy and the support of an experienced tech partner that higher education institutions get the most from investing in tech.

Previously published at https://itrexgroup.com/blog/technology-innovations-in-higher-education/

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