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Report: The Advantages that AI Brings to Higher Ed

The growing prominence of artificial intelligence tools in the mainstream can strengthen the work of higher education in a variety of ways, according to a report commissioned by HBCU support organization the Partnership for Education Advancement.

"AI, Equity, and Affordability:  A Primer for Higher Education Leaders and Educators" a report produced by Whiteboard Advisors and created in partnership with the Harvard-MIT Axim Collaborative, details the ways in which AI can be used to assist colleges and universities with student support, data organization, enrollment, and retention.

Institutions with fewer resources, schools without the sufficient means to adopt or keep current with AI tool usage risk falling behind, subsequently presenting the possibility of another digital divide between those with more and those with less, the report noted.

“I think we really hope that the report would be sort of a guiding document of how an institution like an HBCU might be able to use AI right now,” said Cecilia Marshall, director of external partnerships at Ed Advancement. “We constantly are thinking [about how] if we don't provide a resource or support at this point, our HBCUs might be left behind in the dialogue.”Cecilia MarshallCecilia Marshall

From 24/7 chatbots to personalized tutoring, AI can provide resources for students and educators.

Chatbots, though not necessarily cheaper, free up time that staff can spend face-to-face with students instead of answering calls or emails, Marshall said.

“In the case of South Carolina State University, I think they gained 400 staff hours by using customer service chatbots,” she said. “The cultural responsiveness of staff at HBCUs and really the beauty of community of HBCUs, is the people.”

South Carolina State has used AI in its admissions efforts. The school’s incoming classes have grown because of these efforts, with 53% more enrollees for the first year, said Dr. Manicia J. Finch, vice president for enrollment management at the institution.

“Next, we are building the infrastructure to enable even more seamless student supports – which may include more AI tools,” Finch said.

AI also presents schools an additional way to accommodate students with disabilities, with digital tools that can record and summarize lectures and information, the report noted.

AI can help schools analyze vast amounts of raw data in order to advise students on which courses to take to be most successful, in addition to identifying with varying degrees of accuracy the students who may be struggling academically.

Organizing and processing through large sets of data to draw conclusions on best practices can be costly, a luxury afforded to better-resourced schools. But artificial intelligence can be a cheaper alternative that underfunded institutions can use to help narrow that gap, according to the report.

What AI supplies to students can also benefit them after they graduate, according to the report. AI can assist in “skill-mapping,” where a student’s coursework, experiences, and achievements are translated into the workplace skills they demonstrate, such as how handling a heavy course load while working part-time shows good time management. This allows students to bolster their resumes as they look for employment.

“AI has the potential to help students document valuable skills they’ve developed over the course of their education in a format that employers (and the applicant tracking systems and other IT tools they often rely on) can use,” the report read. “As employers increasingly hire for skills, creating a skills-based, machine-readable articulation of skills can be a meaningful asset for students.”

The use cases for AI tools are many, but tools are only as good as the data they are trained on, the report noted. Machines who learn from skewed data sets – such as inaccurate or disproportionate representations of demographics – will have bias built in and therefore produce biased results.

HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) must do their part in training people on AI, the report suggested. The people creating the AI tools will do well to be representative of its users in order to mitigate biases, the report noted.

“The biggest concern that we see, especially when talking to students at HBCUs, is that they want to be a part of the development,” Marshall said. “The number one concern is that they don't want to be the end users. They want to be the producers of technology.”

Even the AI chatbots that students engage with can be developed in a culturally aware and responsive way, as is the case at HBCU Norfolk State University. There, an AI chatbot the school employs to message its students and applicants was designed to use language that reflects the sense of community that HBCUs invoke, according to the report.

The full extent of how this technology will affect higher ed and the workforce is yet to be seen, given how relatively new AI is, said Erica Price Burns, senior vice president of Whiteboard Advisors. 

“Unlocking the value of AI for everyone, and particularly for those institutions that have been historically underresourced, will require a focus on infrastructure, thoughtful design of AI tools, and affordable access,” she said. 

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