5 technologies that will help colleges meet digital-age students’ expectations

A look at how universities are--and should--use predictive analytics, nudge technology, and more

Most students entering college have grown up with digital technology. It touches nearly every aspect of their lives, and they view it as a critical requirement for a quality education. So, it should come as little surprise that students expect advanced technology at the center of nearly every key administrative and educational process.

Indeed, 87 percent of U.S. students consider the technology savviness of colleges to be important when applying for admission, according to a recent Ellucian-Wakefield Research survey, and 97 percent say technologies supporting their education outside the classroom are just as important.

Not only that, modern students have been conditioned as digital consumers to expect a certain level of personalized service from their favorite schools. They want to see that their school has invested time in figuring out their needs, has assembled ideas or programs to address them, and is sending tailored communications that feel as if the institution really knows them.

Such expectations were almost impossible to meet in the analog world; it took too much precious time to tailor programs and communications for every student. But in the digital world, you can automate everything and still have personal touchpoints with individual students—making them feel special and unique.

Here are five technologies higher ed should adopt to meet modern-day “tech-pectations.”

1. Predictive analytics
The ability to extract meaningful insights from data sets to spot outcomes and trends, predictive analytics can help institutions keep students on track throughout their scholastic journeys.
This is critically important for institutions because by 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the United States will require a postsecondary credential. Yet in 2013, only about 40 percent of working-age Americans had one. As such, colleges and universities face intense pressure to improve retention and completion rates.

Predictive analytics can raise the likelihood students will get the classes they need to graduate by identifying likely demand for certain topics based on historical course-taking patterns and suggesting a need to either add or eliminate scheduled courses.

The technology can also determine which courses a student can take, based on history, to maximize their odds of doing well in their major. Going forward, predictive analytics tools are expected to eventually help schools identify when students might be at risk of dropping out based on factors such as waning attendance, lack of engagement with course work, or even their work or commute schedules.

Predictive analytics in higher education is still in the early stages of implementation, but analysts indicate it’s a top consideration for most college and university CIOs.

2. Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI is another technology that, while still in its early stages, appears poised to transform higher ed in significant ways.

Gartner defines AI as “technology that appears to emulate human performance typically by learning and coming to its own conclusions.” We’re all familiar with it. Every time Amazon suggests we look at a new product based on our shopping history, that’s AI. When we engage with our Alexa on our Amazon Echo and she recommends a new movie or restaurant, that’s AI too.

Universities are already beginning to use AI algorithms to personalize learning and deliver content they’ve adjusted to student needs and their pace of consuming information. At the University of Michigan, AI is making it possible for students to get immediate feedback on their writing. An automated text-analysis program reviews student work to identify strengths and recommend revisions.

AI can also provide a conversational interface with students, helping to answer common questions they have for administrators, such as “When is the first day of school?” or “How do I enroll in classes this quarter?” By building automated responses into telephone lines, web sites, virtual digital assistants, and other channels students use, AI can help institutions save time and trim costs. And by using AI to add special touches to interactions, like “Hi Bob, I noticed you haven’t enrolled in classes yet; would you like to talk about that or something else?” institutions can also address student desires for more personalized service.

3. Chatbots
Chatbots are virtual “people” that simulate human conversation through voice commands or text chats or both. Consumers use them almost daily to advise purchase decisions or help with service issues.

In education, chatbots are already proving to be an invaluable tool for establishing vital dialogs with enrolled students, as well as those interested in attending who might not otherwise engage with their schools—until it’s too late.

A few years ago, for example, Georgia State University (GSU) noticed a sizeable jump in the number of students accepted to the school during the summer months who were not showing up for enrollment in the fall, a phenomenon known as “summer melt.” In response, GSU piloted a chatbot project called “Pounce” to regularly connect with incoming students, keeping them updated on critical deadlines, happenings on campus, and other pertinent enrollment information. In the first four months, the chatbot reportedly exchanged nearly 200,000 messages with students, a volume of work that would have taken 10 staffers to accomplish.

4. “Nudge” technology
Chatbots could also soon play a role in helping students get to class on time.

One of Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technologies Impacting Higher Education in 2018 is something it calls “nudge tech.” This is basically a collection of technologies working together to deliver timely personalized interactions and reminders to students, staff, and faculty.

Much like your Outlook flashes reminder notices for upcoming meetings, nudge tech would go even further by monitoring a variety of student records and noting potential opportunities or issues affecting the scholastic journey. For instance, nudge tech might let a student know they have just one day to pay tuition or warn that a class in their major is filling up quickly or even that they are likely to miss a big exam if they do not reach class in the next five minutes.

5. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)
AR and VR use technology to immerse people in enhanced or completely artificial digital worlds.
From an admissions standpoint, AR and VR let institutions provide personalized virtual campus tours, complete with a video representation of administrators welcoming prospective or incoming students to the school and walking them through key facilities aligned to their fields of study.

For educators, AR and VR offer everything from virtual field trips of historical and architectural sites to training functions where students can get hands-on with simulated materials or important individuals (real or virtual) connected to their majors.

Today, serving student needs and assuring their loyalty doesn’t have to involve heavy investing. Rather, it is important to determine an institution’s goals, select a few strategic technologies to support them, and deploy the solutions smartly over time.

The critical question to ask along the way is: “How will this technology deliver clear and measurable personalized experiences for most of our students?” If the answer is anything short of “It will have a significant effect,” then keep looking. In the competitive world of education, you really want to get this one right.

eSchool Media Contributors