Today's innovative technologies can help higher education institutions respond proactively to social and economic trends and create a better, more holistic student experience.
The 2023 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: Holistic Student Experience Edition underscored the need for colleges and universities to proactively address the emerging social and economic trends impacting higher education.Footnote1 Institutions across the nation are shifting their priorities as they face a variety of challenges, ranging from declining enrollments and budget cuts to student mental health challenges and increased interest in online and hybrid education. These challenges tend to be complex and difficult to address individually. Several key technology practices can help campuses proactively respond to these challenges while supporting student success and ensuring that there are appropriate strategies in place to manage the human factor.
1. Create a Next-Generation Campus Support Structure to Enhance the Student Experience
It may not be apparent how closely aligned robust and effective IT and student support services and higher education mission statements are. However, an efficient and effective support structure can ensure that a college or university is able to conduct the business of educating students and ensuring that they excel and graduate. With high competition among colleges and universities and enrollment and retention challenges, supporting students and faculty has never been more important. After decision-makers select and deploy a digital learning tool, faculty and students must be able to utilize the tool efficiently and effectively. In addition, streamlining processes across various campus departments—from the registrar and financial aid offices to academic advising—will help to ensure that all students are supported and have the tools they need to succeed.
An all-inclusive app with a consistent user interface would allow students to share files and communicate via text, email, chat, phone, or video. Providing students with a range of communication modes demonstrates the institution's commitment to their success. For example, when video is included as part of the student support experience, faculty and staff can observe a student's facial expressions and body language—cues that can help them address complex issues and sensitive topics more effectively.
The new hybrid campus environment requires a thoughtful plan for expanding service hours without expanding budgets. Colleges and universities that expand their online presence need to ensure that students who reside in different time zones are fully supported. Providing students with the support they need when they need it is imperative. Generative AI tools do not need to "take a break" or get eight hours of sleep. Designing a technology that leverages an automated environment across all campus touchpoints allows institutions to scale the student experience regardless of where students are located or what time it is.
2. Leverage Generative AI for Personalized Student Recruitment, Retention, and Success
Generative AI has the power to equip students with the tools and resources they need to excel in a dynamic and ever-evolving educational landscape. A generative AI tutor initiative could support all students and help meet their personalized needs. Students are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, and mental health challenges are impacting their ability to navigate their college careers successfully.Footnote2 By providing an AI tutor to all students, the student population would be more likely to feel like the institution cares about them and is empowering them to succeed.Footnote3 AI-powered virtual mentors can also complement the faculty and staff members who serve students daily. With the rapidly increasing sophistication of AI, the performance of virtual mentors promises to be reliable, overcoming the "hallucinogenic" tendencies of the AI tools and large language models of early 2023.Footnote4
A virtual mentor is a 24/7 support model that can answer and support students with a breadth of expertise beyond what a human tutor typically possesses. Over time, this mentor/student relationship results in an "augmented intelligence" scenario in which the student's knowledge is refined as the student interacts with the AI. Unlike human tutors, who specialize in specific subjects and require formal scheduling, AI tutors can provide support across a broad array of subjects and do not require formal scheduling.
Generative AI can understand and generate responses in multiple languages, making it especially beneficial for international students and students who speak English as a second language. These students may need help navigating the admission process for a new program or understanding the content of a lecture. With the ability to reach and support students when they encounter obstacles—whether related to campus operations or course materials—an AI tutor embedded in a learning management system (LMS) can help students succeed by putting needed support services at their fingertips.
Although every student can benefit from a customized generative AI tutor, there are specific, targeted groups of students who would particularly benefit from having such a tool. For example, athletes who travel and cannot attend class could have all the course materials available to them. Students enrolled in large lecture classes could access support and guidance despite the high student-to-instructor ratio. Students in such large lecture classes may have a better chance of connecting with their instructors about more advanced questions because the AI tutor frees up faculty time by answering many of the lower-level questions. Online students, who may feel disconnected from their peers and instructors, could have a 24/7 resource to guide them and respond to questions.
3. Supporting Robust Student Mental Health Beyond the Basics
Colleges and universities can combine a variety of strategies and approaches to complement traditional on-campus mental health support options. An educational setting that caters to the individual needs of students could alleviate serious challenges and contribute to better mental health outcomes. However, the effectiveness of such an approach may vary and should be coordinated with broader mental health support strategies.
Campuses that implement proactive, safe-campus initiatives and communicate these strategies to parents and students can model campus safety. Never before has it been more important to plan for a crisis. Innovative technologies that go well beyond the basics can be implemented, including cellular 911 location detection with geofencing and digital mapping, gunshot audio detection, AI detection of physical weapons before entering a building, and remote control of cameras and door locks. The ability to connect campus staff, dispatchers, and first responders in real time while linking in-building technology and enabling classroom visualization and silent communication can help save lives.
Institutions that proactively respond to the challenges discussed above while respecting and aligning their strategies with human concerns are poised to create a more supportive and effective learning environment for their students.
- 2023 EDUCAUSE Horizon Report: Holistic Student Experience Edition, research report, (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, October 2023). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
- Ibid., 8. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
- Ibid., 19. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
- "AI hallucination is a phenomenon wherein a large language model (LLM)—often a generative AI chatbot or computer vision tool—perceives patterns or objects that are nonexistent or imperceptible to human observers, creating outputs that are nonsensical or altogether inaccurate." Definition from "What Are AI Hallucinations?" IBM (website), accessed October 26, 2023. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
Julie Johnston is Executive Director of Education at Avaya.
© 2023 Avaya.