Here’s how to boost enrollment with chatbots

As recently as last year, nearly one in five students who committed to attending Georgia State University (GSU) never showed up for classes in the fall. This problem isn’t unique to GSU, and it’s commonly referred to as the “summer melt.” But GSU has taken an innovative approach to solving this challenge, using an artificially intelligent (AI) chatbot that has led to a significant increase in student enrollment.

Summer melt most commonly affects low-income students, many of whom are the first in their family to be accepted into college. Navigating the complex student enrollment process can be intimidating for anyone, but especially these students—and many just give up before they complete the process.

To reverse this trend, GSU identified the common barriers that students face between graduating high school and beginning college, including filling out financial aid forms, completing immunization records, taking placement exams, and registering for classes.

The university then developed a two-pronged approach to help at-risk students through these obstacles: (1) It implemented a new portal to guide students through the steps they must take to be ready for the first day of classes, with technology to track their progress toward completion so officials could ensure their success; and (2) it launched “Pounce,” an AI-enhanced chatbot, to answer questions about the process from incoming students 24-7 via text messages on their smart devices.

The chatbot is powered by a mobile messaging platform from AdmitHub, an edtech company that develops custom chatbots designed to support student enrollment and retention. It uses conversational AI technology to personalize admissions support for incoming students, drawing upon a knowledge base with answers to more than 2,000 anticipated questions.

AdmitHub built this knowledge base in partnership with GSU administrators, who gave the final approval on what the chatbot’s responses would be. While this knowledge base continues to grow, there are times when the bot hasn’t yet learned the answer to a specific question, says AdmitHub Co-Founder and CEO Drew Magliozzi. There are also situations when it’s best for a human to intervene to provide additional guidance.

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How to fix developmental education

According to a PBS article, an increasing number of students who enroll in public colleges enter unprepared. At first glance, the idea of dropping placement tests like Accuplacer may seem like a bad idea. After all, students with low skills need to be identified and brought up to speed. But consider the following factors: outside stress, illness, and poor test-taking skills can all impact student scores. Much of the time, results don’t reflect what students can actually accomplish, because too many variables can cause an inaccurate result in a single placement test.

Then there’s the problem of the remedial label; often, students who place in developmental classes don’t attend their courses. The stigma can interfere with student achievement.

Enter competency-based learning, a solution many community colleges are choosing to better serve students whose skills are still developing. The model is gaining in popularity at colleges and universities across the country, including Northern Essex in Massachusetts, Purdue University, the University of Michigan, and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Defining competency-based learning
Competency-based learning focuses on structuring skill acquisition for students to demonstrate what they know and can do, rather than be required to complete sequences of time-consuming courses based on a single, questionable placement score.

Cathrael Kazin, managing partner of Volta Leaning Group, a consulting company that assists colleges in implementing new postsecondary ed models, believes that the competency-based model is superior to the traditional placement test/course sequence model. Kazin, who was founding chief academic officer at SNHU’s College of America initiative—whose competency-based program was the first of its kind approved by the Department of Education in 2013—says that while placement tests are quick and easy and can handle many students, they give a false sense of objectivity. “There’s really little evidence for it, and there are better ways to see where students are,” she says. In addition, placement tests cause higher dropout rates, unfairly affect first-generation students and students of color, cost students more money, and lengthen the time it takes for students to graduate.

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Is this JMU program the future of education?

Instead of solving for X or writing a thesis about information warfare, what if college students were designing drones that could solve the world’s declining oyster population? Or creating a way for U.S. intelligence agencies to counteract information warfare through social media?

That’s the idea behind James Madison University’s revolutionary JMU X-Labs program, which has undergraduate students solve authentic, real-world challenges for clients ranging from the Smithsonian Institution to the Department of Homeland Security and NATO.

Working in cross-disciplinary teams, students apply design-thinking strategies to solve complex challenges with important implications for health care, global safety, food security, and other weighty issues.

In the process, these students not only build deeper knowledge within academic disciplines such as science, engineering, and public policy; they also learn creative problem solving, teamwork, and other critical workforce skills—while making a difference in the world.

“I wish education was more like this,” says Cassandra Hagstoz, a JMU student who graduated last spring. “It’s so much more rewarding.”

JMU X-Labs consists of a dozen cross-disciplinary courses, including Drones, Community Innovations, Hacking for Diplomacy, and Medical Innovations. The courses are open to undergraduate students from any major, although they are advanced-level courses targeting juniors and seniors in particular.

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7 ways AI will shape the future of education and work

While artificial intelligence (AI) hasn’t yet had a wide-reaching impact on the workforce, AI skills are predicted to remain in increasingly high demand.

With so many industries seeing the potential for AI applications come to fruition, the economy will need highly-trained workers to fill what is likely to be a rising demand for such skills.

1. The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs 2018 forecasts that AI will have applications in almost every sector. Software and IT services saw incredible growth in the past two years, but education, hardware and networking, finance, and manufacturing saw increases as well.

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How to use social media to engage Gen Z in class and beyond

Colleges need to have a savvy social-media presence to attract and hold Generation Z’s attention as well as to address their academic, personal, and career needs. To reach students, colleges must develop effective digital tactics both inside and outside the classroom.

And to reach Gen Z where they live, you need to use their favorite platforms—Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, says Nicole Kraft, who teaches journalism at Ohio State University, which ranks sixth in BestColleges.com’s Stars of Social Media Colleges 2018.

Using social media in class
According to Kraft, professors need to teach students how to use platforms properly before giving assignments. “Just because students have been using social media for much of their lives doesn’t mean they know the right way to use it,” she says.

She recommends using Slack, a cloud-based collaboration hub that has similar features to other social-media platforms. With Slack, students can learn appropriate use of social media without their content being visible to the public and possibly damaging a future career. Kraft suggests walking them through the entire process, including setting up accounts and profiles. “Take the time to build into the course structure how they will use these tools,” she says.

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5 public opinions about the state of higher education

Most Americans support a racially and ethnically diverse student body on college campuses, but they overwhelmingly do not support using race as a factor in college admissions, according to a WGBH News national poll on perceptions of higher education.

The national poll looks at the impact colleges and universities have on society, perceptions of public and private universities, and the role of higher education in society and the value of a college education, among other issues.

Overall, more than 77 percent of those surveyed say they believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on society, and 81 percent believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the local community.

While 76 percent have a favorable opinion of public higher education, only 59 percent shared that opinion when asked about private colleges and universities.

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Innovators worth watching: Western Governors University

Now in its third decade, Western Governors University (WGU) has students in every U.S. state and has over 100,000 enrolled students—a 230-percent increase since 2011. This growth is particularly notable given that overall higher education enrollment has declined by over a million students since 2011—a decline concentrated in the adult learner population.

WGU is growing quickly, but is it disruptive? Six questions for identifying disruption—as well as a new paper—help us analyze WGU’s disruptive potential.

1. Does it target people whose only alternative is to buy nothing at all (nonconsumers) or who are overserved by existing offerings in the market?

Yes. In the mid-1990s, governors of 19 states across the western United States founded WGU as a way to bring accessible college education to rural populations, especially working adults. Today, WGU students aren’t typical college attendees: The average WGU student is 37 years old, 74 percent are working full time, and 40 percent are first-generation college attendees.

2. Is the offering not as good as existing offerings as judged by historical measures of performance?

Yes. Traditional colleges compete on academic prestige. WGU’s programs are entirely online and the school doesn’t offer the traditional campus facilities and experiences. The school eschews the research focus of more prestigious universities, and President Pulsipher notes that WGU is not an attractive destination for faculty who wish to be a ‘sage on a stage.’ Instead, WGU’s faculty model optimizes for flexibility, and the supports needed by working adults.

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The explosive growth of collegiate eSports, part 2

Gaming, once thought of as only a recreational activity, is becoming one of the most influential and rapidly growing industries with the introduction of eSports, which is expected to grow to $1.4 billion by 2020.

As an early adopter, SUNY Canton was one of the first schools to embrace that growth by launching a competitive eSports athletic program and joining the National Association of Collegiate Esports. But SUNY Canton didn’t stop there. As we were developing the eSports program from an athletics perspective, we also explored how eSports could connect online students with campus life. With more than 25 percent of our students enrolled online, eSports offers opportunities for this population to become student athletes and deepen their connection to the college community.

Student interest is matched by industry predictions. Across the world, eSports is growing at a rate of 40 percent a year. It is expected to top $1.5 billion dollars (U.S.) in revenue by 2020 with a global audience of more than 580 million. Employment of gaming software developers, graphic designers, virtual reality engineers, multimedia artists, and animators is projected to grow six percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job opportunities include sport sales, marketing, public relations, facilities operations, event and tournament management, announcers, coaches, etc.

In part one of this series, my colleague Randy Sieminski shared how SUNY Canton’s eSports athletic program came to fruition. In part two, I’ll cover how eSports grew beyond the athletic department and blossomed into an academic program that’s giving our students a platform to grow their careers in the emerging gaming industry.

New majors to support a new industry
With an already thriving student body that enjoyed gaming in their free time and as a school rooted in STEM education, SUNY Canton’s leadership realized that eSports could be an opportunity to reach and engage students not only on the “field,” but also in the classroom and beyond.

When we first introduced eSports athletic teams on campus, we focused on teaching the skillsets student athletes normally gain on the field: community, team building, and leadership. As we watched the market grow and flourish, we realized students also need to understand the business aspect of eSports.

Recognizing that we need to prepare students for the economic and professional opportunities generated by the sport of competitive gaming, SUNY Canton recently drafted a proposal for a new eSports Management degree. The degree focuses on the business side of this fast-growing industry. We also offer complementary and related degrees in Sports Management, Technological Communication, Cybersecurity, and Graphic and Multimedia Design to provide students with additional career paths to the gaming industry. Through these courses, we are teaching students about the business side of what goes in to managing tournaments and competitive play, the virtual and technology side of gaming, and the design that goes into making the beautiful games we play.

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Have you hired a CHRO?

As the competition for top-notch faculty increases, human resource (HR) departments in higher education are experiencing a key transformation—and this shift has important implications for colleges and universities.

Traditionally, campus HR departments have largely been “personnel shops,” says John Thornburgh, a senior partner at the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. In other words, they have focused mainly on the basics of administration, compliance, developing and enforcing rules and regulations, and other tactical elements of managing employees.

However, today’s campus HR departments are becoming much more strategic in their approach by focusing on how they can recruit, attract, develop, and retain the best employees for their institutions. This shift reflects the changes that have occurred in the private sector, Thornburgh notes, where companies are investing heavily in the tools and staff needed to hire and retain top talent.

“The chief human resource officer role is being looked at as a much more strategic leadership position than it has been in the past,” he says. “What we’re seeing now is the need for an HR leader who is transformative in developing and driving a high-performing employee culture.”

This change affects the skills that chief human resource officers need to be successful. According to Thornburgh, here are three key attributes that college and university leaders should look for in a CHRO:

A vision for how to make the institution a distinctive place to teach or work.
A big part of the CHRO role is to identify what makes an institution stand out and how to “sell” the organization when recruiting employees. “You want to be able to signal to faculty that they’re working and teaching in a unique place that has a clear mission and a special character,” Thornburgh says.

This is an important aspect of the job, he says, because if recruiting is simply reduced to compensation, then the “haves” would be draining faculty and research talent from the “have-nots”—which would be “detrimental” to higher education.

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OER planning 101

Open educational resources (OER) are gaining momentum among stakeholders in higher education. From students to faculty to administrators, the benefits of OER can help offset the rising costs of traditional textbooks.

For over a decade, the pioneers of OER consisted of a group of global trailblazers dedicated to the cause of open access and cost reduction for students. Oftentimes, figuring out the logistics and lessons learned along the trail, they set the stage for broader awareness of OER.

In addition to the pioneers, there has been a myriad of both legislative and non-legislative actions that have brought OER to the attention of many higher-ed administrators and practitioners. And while OER may appear to be a “quick fix” for textbook costs, the perception that OER can be done for free is not necessarily the case, not to mention getting started is easier said than done. There are steps and considerations that can make OER conversion a project worth pursuing.

Let’s get started.

Institutional readiness
The following considerations will assist in the planning and prep work to be done prior to launching OER. Building a good base for OER will help prevent missteps in the next stages.

  • Culture: Developing an OER culture is important to ensure support and buy-in from the institutional community. From the executive level, incorporating OER into strategic planning is an appropriate place to start. A survey to faculty and staff is a good method for assessing knowledge about OER and will also help with determining training needs. Developing workshops around lessons learned from similar institutions or strategic partners can be effective in motivating interest about OER.
  • Systems: OER content will typically have a longer shelf life than a traditional textbook or e-text. You should develop systems of storage and retrieval with appropriate permissions and access. This may include a learning management system, your school’s online bookstore, your course materials management and delivery partner, or a centrally located database or storage file system that can be easily uploaded into online courses or accessed for ground courses. You should also create a list of permissible file types to provide to curators of OER.
  • Legal: Intellectual property rights—specifically copyright policies related to OER—should be created or revised to minimize legal actions.
  • Cost: One of the perceived benefits of OER is cost savings. From the content perspective, OER is free. But there are procurement and maintenance costs to consider. It’s a good idea to develop a methodology or framework to track time and resources so you can accurately calculate the cost savings of OER.
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