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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Hey, Google, Alexa, Siri and Higher Ed

The growing use of voice search and virtual digital assistants will have an increasing impact on how we deliver, search for and market higher education.

I watch the many ways in which my 7-year-old grandson engages with Google Home when he drops by the house. Whenever a question of history or fact arises, I pull out my phone or walk to my open laptop, but he always beats me to the answer by simply speaking out: “Hey Google …”

This is just a seed of a rapidly growing phenomenon in human-computer interface that will enable far greater personalization and reach. Voice recognition and artificially intelligent interpretation are at the core of these technologies. As this rolls out into a pervasive interface, we are seeing changes in the way in which higher education is conducted.

Georgia Tech, Northeastern University and Arizona State University are among the universities leading the way in embracing voice assistants in supporting students and faculty members. “Call it a next-level chatbot, a natural extension of existing smartphone apps, or even a way to demonstrate technological prowess in a crowded student-recruitment market. Believers say that the use of the technology will only expand, and that lessons from the first year of student use across the country can instruct future adopters,” Lindsay Ellis wrote in The Chronicle. The early applications are mostly focused on everyday student needs on campus, but clearly the future is the way in which this technology migrates into research and the curriculum.

Imagine a true “student assistant” that links to AI applications and can conduct customized research. For example, a student might ask the assistant to list five articles on a topic that is being discussed in class — such as the impact of the midterm election results on climate policy. A trivial extension of that inquiry would be to send the results to a printer. And how about a logical extension that is nontrivial: asking a computer program to write a five-page paper citing those five articles, print the paper and email an electronic version to the student?

Manuscript Writer by sciNote is AI software that claims to assemble the key pieces of a research paper. Reviews of the grammatical quality at this point are not strong, but the potential of this technology is undeniable: “The sciNote system is likely to improve, though. In theory, its AI will learn from its mistakes by comparing users’ finished papers to the software’s first attempts. Given what we’ve already seen in automated journalism, it’s not so crazy to predict that the quality of science paper robo-prose will soon become much better than it is today. Perhaps we’ll even reach the point where it’s about as good (or about as bad) as the work of average human scientists.”

How far away are we from a full synthesis of emerging capabilities to do original research and writing — all triggered by a voice command? Not far. And, one has to ask, how does the advent of this technology impact the way in which we teach? Do we need to re-examine our pedagogies in light of very smart assistants?

Outside the classroom, voice-search technologies are affecting the way in which prospective students learn about our universities, degrees and programs. Increasing numbers of students are asking Alexa, Google and Siri, “Which university in this state has the highest ranked M.B.A.?” or “What is the average starting salary for a blockchain developer?” and “What universities offer certificates in blockchain development?”

The questions lead us to ask if our marketing departments are optimizing for these kinds of questions. This step beyond search engine optimization is called voice engine optimization, and it differs significantly from what we have doing for the past decade: “When it comes to voice search, getting to the top is more important than ever,” Emily Alford from marketing technology site ClickZ states. “On a desktop search for businesses, there are pages of options. On mobile, there are less, but being in the top four will probably get you noticed. Voice search, however, really only gives one or two options.”

Voice enabling is the funnel through which we will access increasingly smart technologies. As these technologies evolve and further intertwine into a conversant smart system, we must respond and anticipate the changes that are only months away. A good place to begin is implementing VEO for all of our programs.

Universities must be responding to this new trend to capture new prospective students, and to make sure you are sending current students to the proper resources that will enrich their time on campus. Have you begun implementing VEO at your school? If not, one of the best ways to start is to simply act like a student might and use your devices to ask the questions one might ask in natural speech, and then assess the position of your pages and tweak, text and repeat as needed. The changes you find could be small, and their potential impact for your school could be transformative.

This article was first posted December 12th in Inside Higher Ed’s Inside Digital Learning. 

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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