Universities Jumping on the AI Train

Higher education institutions have flipped the script on artificial intelligence (AI) on campuses, increasingly taking steps to keep up with the technology and harness it on an institution-wide scale to deliver a better educational experience at a lower cost.

Before jumping on the AI train, most staff at colleges and universities wanted to block campus access to AI-enabled tools like ChatGPT, due to worries about cheating and the possibility of security breaches.

However, blocking access to AI on campuses could not derail or halt that moving train. Instead of fighting the flow, institutions did what they have always done in times of upheaval: adapt and adopt.

“I think the institutions that are doing it really, really well have embraced the idea that AI is a speeding train coming down the tracks,” said Adam Robyak, field chief technology officer and  principal engineer at Dell Technologies, in a statement. “Jumping in front of it, you’re just going to get squished. The best you can do is hop on board and figure out how to use it to best reach your destination or goal.”

Robyak explained that on college campuses he has observed educators exploring how AI can help develop course materials and tutor students. At the same time, researchers using AI to apply for grants or adopt AI as a new area of study, and administrators are implementing AI into alumni outreach, cybersecurity, student assistance, process automation, and more.

Utah Valley University has begun to dip its toes into generative AI (GenAI) through small, directed experiments. The results: GenAI has the potential to improve student education, save administrators time, bolster research efforts, and cut overhead.

One of these experiments was coined “TA in a Box.” Through GenAI capabilities the university was able to assist students and teacher assistants in the overwhelming and intimidating nature of large lecture hall-style courses.

The university uploaded recorded lectures, syllabi, course materials, homework assignments and quizzes to customize large language models for an introductory biology course. Students can ask the chatbot questions, and the “TA In a Box” pores through all of that information to deliver the answer.

“For a particular topic, it goes through the syllabus and knows when it was talked about,” said Christina Baum, vice president of digital transformation and chief information officer at Utah Valley University.

Moving forward, the software is being enhanced to analyze each student’s homework assignments and quizzes. Based on what questions a student missed, it puts together a personalized study guide for them to use before the next exam.

University administrators have also turned to GenAI as a writing and coding partner. According to Baum, administrators already use tools like ChatGPT to write job descriptions, craft emails, summarize meetings, and more.

Baum thinks universities must find ways to control costs to reverse the continuous low levels of college enrollment. In addition, higher-ed institutions should target areas like student admissions, financial aid, and transcript reviews for opportunities to automate processes, she said.

“If we can remove some of the administrative burden [with AI] and allow [staff and faculty] to have more time to focus on … that outreach to the student, that personal touch, I think we can help shepherd our students through the educational experience in a better way,” Baum said.