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Embrace AI to solve old campus problems in new ways

May 22, 2018

Excitement over artificial intelligence (AI) continues to spread across campus, but despite the growing buzz around possible applications, creative adoption still lags. To coax your campus into taking exploratory steps with AI, opt for a problem-first approach: Market machine learning (ML) as a solution to strategic imperatives rather than just another flashy technology gimmick.

To explore AI applications in higher ed, EAB’s IT Forum recently hosted a panel on machine learning and artificial intelligence. Panelists from California State University, Northridge (CSU) and Georgia State University (GSU) shared tips on how to align innovative IT projects with campus-wide goals to secure investment and maintain stakeholder interest.

Market AI as a solution to a campus-wide challenge


messages responded to by GSU’s chatbot in summer 2016

Georgia State leveraged AI technology to support the university’s top strategic goal: Increasing enrollment rates. Deputy Chief Innovation Officer John Bandy emphasized, “This project did not start as a technology initiative. GSU needed to get more freshmen to arrive on campus in the fall and we realized AI was a tool that could make that happen.”

Bandy’s team partnered with Boston-based edtech company AdmitHub to develop a chatbot, designed to engage with high school seniors who plan to attend Georgia State the following year. The chatbot, named “Pounce” after GSU’s panther mascot, provides on-demand responses to questions from admitted students. In summer 2016, Pounce responded to 200,000 messages from 3,100 students.

“Pounce accounted for more than 99% of the engagement that Georgia State’s incoming class had with the university between being admitted and arriving on campus for orientation,” explained Bandy. “Admissions counselors simply did not have the capacity able to provide the amount of individualized support that the chatbot could.”

Strategic innovation drives engagement

Pounce’s interactions with admitted students paid off: There was a 22% reduction in summer melt—students who commit GSU but then fail to matriculate in the fall—resulting in an additional three million dollars of tuition revenue.

But success did not come cheap. In addition to the cost of the chatbot’s development, Georgia State’s ten person team of admissions counselors spent months teaching Pounce how to respond accurately to students’ questions, another task added to a demanding workload.

“Since AI served as a solution to a campus-wide initiative, everyone was eager to help,” said Bandy. Widespread interest in the technology’s application and impressive results secured Bandy’s team the necessary resources to continue developing the chatbot.

Boost AI’s profile to launch strategic partnerships

At many colleges and universities, leaders around campus are unaware of the role that AI could play in easing high-priority pain points. CSU, Northridge addressed this hurdle with a campus-wide event, called an AI Jam, designed to open the community’s eyes to the prolific applications of AI.

Part of the AI Jam was a competition that required groups of students and faculty to identify a campus problem and solve it using AI.

The group representing the career studies department designed a bot that responded to visual stimuli in distinct ways. For example, the bot might cry if it saw a dog. This tool was then used to help students practice their child-care skills in a parenting class that the department offered. Another group developed a chatbot that offered students career advice, which the campus career center later picked up for use.

“The AI Jam opened stakeholders’ eyes to the wide range of the technology’s application,” explained Hilary Baker, vice president for IT and CIO at CSU, Northridge.

“Suddenly, conversations about AI are popping up all over campus. We’re now being asked to leverage the technology to help with first year retention. In fact, we’ve just launched an AI tool to support a subset of first-time freshman, and we look forward to seeing how this technology might help keep students on the path to graduation.”

Next steps for your campus: Put problems first

While GSU and CSU, Northridge both turned to AI to scale interactions and add value to their students’ experience on campus, neither did without outside influences. Strategic imperatives and real-life end-user issues are at the heart of both school’s successful AI initiatives.

If you’re still wondering where AI might take your campus, think first about campus and unit strategies and add AI to the growing toolbox of solutions to drive higher education forward in the digital age.

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