Moving Beyond Pockets of Excellence in Higher Ed AI

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Is AI changing the world? Is it transforming higher education as we know it? Or is it working quietly in the background?

Moving Beyond Pockets of Excellence in Higher Ed AI
Credit: AlesiaKan / © 2022

For a while now, I've often shared some of the more dramatic statistics and predictions about artificial intelligence, like the claim that nearly 30% of consumers couldn't say if their last customer service exchange was with a human or a bot and the prediction that by 2020 "the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse."Footnote1 However, as is often the case, perhaps the more important number is the more nuanced (and less dramatic) one. As far back as 2017, reports have surfaced about the surprising proportion—sometimes one-half, sometimes two-thirds—of people using AI in their daily lives who do not believe they are doing so.Footnote2 It's one thing to nod to the rapid growth of AI adoption, but it's something else entirely to track the degree to which a growing reliance on artificial intelligence is happening under our noses without our even knowing it. Is AI changing the world? Is it transforming higher education as we know it? Or is it working quietly in the background?

The EDUCAUSE Review special report on AI highlights promising practices in the use of AI in higher education. AI can make a significant difference: for example, incorporated in ways to better serve students with disabilities and used (adaptive learning) to improve student success with demonstrable results. AI can give students complementary opportunities to dig into course materials, and when it's working well, it can free faculty from transactional tasks and unleash them to interact, as only humans can, with their students.

However, as noted in the EDUCAUSE QuickPoll on AI, "Current use of AI is a mile wide and an inch deep." The examples remind me of how we used to describe campus initiatives that worked in a few departments but weren't adopted on a widespread basis. We smiled optimistically and observed that we were seeing "pockets of excellence." The gap between where we are and where we hope to be is perhaps most obvious in research from McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm. AI could, the company reports, reduce teachers' workloads by 20–40 percent and cut prep time and administrative time in half.Footnote3 The data point is inspirational. Yet I found myself thinking that AI in higher education will remain an unrealized hope until those in the field, not consulting companies, are the ones making the case for increased adoption.

When will we find traction for AI in higher education? When faculty are clamoring for more. Trust me, when the value proposition for AI is the liberation of faculty from the drudgery of transactional interactions with students ("When is the test?" "Where is the lab?" "When is the paper due?"), faculty will stand in line to sign up. Until then, higher education will continue to be in an adolescent phase in the use of AI.

Meanwhile, one of the most important ways to build the case for AI in the field is to delineate the evidence of impact shown by studies exploring how AI improves student outcomes. Similarly, research is needed to examine the unintended pitfalls of AI—with a deliberate focus on what ethical AI looks like, with hard work at the point of design (and not as remediation done after an AI solution has launched).Footnote4

You'll see these themes and many others woven into the EDUCAUSE Review special report on AI. And the time is decidedly right. Higher education professionals need to be aware of the directions in which AI is moving within our world. There is little question that what we do (and decide not to do) at this early stage will have important implications for the decades that follow.

Bump. Bump.

I know it's time for me to stop reflecting and writing about the potential of artificial intelligence when my AI-driven portable vacuum cleaner is repeatedly bumping against my office door. It has mapped our floorplan, and it knows I am in here working. Meanwhile, it's working quietly (mostly) in the background to transform my dirty floors.


  1. "Bot.Me: A Revolutionary Partnership," PwC Consumer Intelligence Series, 2017; Heather Pemberton Levy, "Gartner Predicts a Virtual World of Exponential Change," Gartner (website), October 18, 2016. For more forecasts from a few years ago, see Gil Press, "AI by the Numbers: 33 Facts and Forecasts about Chatbots and Voice Assistants," Forbes, May 15, 2017. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Shep Hyken, "Half Of People Who Encounter Artificial Intelligence Don't Even Realize It," Forbes, June 10, 2017; Eileen Brown, "Two Out of Three Consumers Don't Realize They're Using AI," ZDNet, March 16, 2017. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Jake Bryant, Christine Heitz, Saurabh Sanghvi, and Dilip Wagle, "How Artificial Intelligence Will Impact K-12 Teachers," McKinsey & Company (website), January 14, 2020. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. For more on the ethics of AI, see John O'Brien, "Digital Ethics in Higher Education: 2020," EDUCAUSE Review, May 18, 2020. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

© 2021 John O'Brien. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.