Online: Trending Now

Unique biweekly insights and news review
from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Our New Digital Colleagues and Friends

There is an intriguing anthropomorphic trend underway to apply human attributes and attitudes to artificial intelligence-driven chat bots and assorted personal assistant tools.

This is not unique in the history of humans. We tend to assign human attributes and names to tools and conveyances. We all have known over the years individuals who given their automobiles and other devices human names. However, today’s trend is different in significant ways. Most notably, today’s devices can “talk” back; they can respond in intelligent and personalized ways.

Alexa and the Google Assistant apps can address you personally, by responding to queries with your name, acknowledging your preferences while they remind you of your schedule. Both are able to conduct internet searches, control other IoT devices and review your calendar commitments. Of course, a variety of voices can be chosen for your digital companion. Google Assistant can carry on a conversation:

If you ask, “Hey Google, want to chat?” she’ll cheerfully agree, and if you encourage her (“what do you want to talk about?”) she’ll suggest topics of discussion. For example, Google Assistant offered to reveal her secret crush (Jarvis from The Avengers, she told me), and then she asked if I wanted to hear “something weird” (such as the fact that bees have two stomachs). Or you could ask Assistant [if] she wants to do something fun, and she’ll tick off some options.

Alexa has “her” own tricks, such as playing trivia games and performing a litany of tasks when addressed with a simple “good morning” or responding in kind to a whisper:

From a purely practical standpoint, Alexa’s Whisper Mode, which makes Alexa whisper back to you when you whisper to her, is handy for keeping Alexa from waking other household members when you ask her a question in the wee hours. But I’ve found Alexa’s whispered responses to be oddly calming and therapeutic, particularly after reading a bad headline about current events. Sounds kinda weird, right? Perhaps, but it works for me.

Of course, deep learning applications in artificial intelligence go much further than merely preprogrammed responses to commands in predictable ways. Increasingly, AI is utilized for triage in diagnoses of medical conditions — learning new symptoms and associated maladies; reading X-rays; even “knowing” when to call in a specialist to confirm or assess a diagnosis when the algorithm is less certain.

Early on, artificial intelligence brought smart robotics to replace assembly line workers in manufacturing. Now, AI is bringing about radical changes in professions, including the management, medical, accounting and legal fields.

Higher education is not immune to the AI revolution. In this COVID-19 era, chat bots powered by AI have come to the aid of students and others who are in need of information, referrals and help. Utilizing deep learning functions, artificially intelligent bots can learn from questions posed and subsequent answers can be given if such questions arise again. The bot improves with most every new exchange, enhancing the relevancy and accuracy of responses.

Such learning enables the chat bots over time to know just what to say when the human confides personal information or raises ambiguous questions. When the pandemic hit campuses, some chat bots changed their tone to meet the less trivial questions of students:

Beginning in the spring of 2020, students’ relationship with their texting buddies shifted. More began to share concerns above and beyond school — including about the pandemic, racial injustice and the presidential election, Magliozzi said. In turn, said Jill Leafstedt, associate vice provost for innovation and faculty development at Cal State Channel Islands, “our bot took on a different personality.” Ekhobot became an empathetic friend, available at all hours to answer students’ questions, let them vent or cheer them on. It asked students what song was helping them get through the pandemic and used the responses to create a Spotify playlist of “quarantunes.”

Jill Watson, now 5 years old, is the AI teaching assistant created by Georgia Tech professor Ashok Goel. Responding to text-based discussion questions from online students, Jill was often mistaken by students for a human TA. For these past five years, the AI virtual teaching assistant has been “learning,” refining and revising, while spin-offs have been created to facilitate student group work and discussion.

Even further human-AI engagement is advancing through the use of robots. “Eye contact is a key to establishing a connection, and teachers use it often to encourage participation. But can a robot do this too? Can it draw a response simply by making ‘eye’ contact, even with people who are less inclined to speak up? A recent study suggests that it can.”

While text, voice and even a robot’s gaze can elicit human engagement with algorithms, research continues to advance in direct brain computer interfaces. Elon Musk’s Neuralink venture is experimenting with micron-width threads that connect directly into the brain to allow users to control and interact with AI without voice or text. Neuralink plans to enable users, by merely thinking, to engage intelligent devices. Meanwhile, Facebook is developing a wristband that “uses electromyography (EMG) to interpret electrical activity from motor nerves as they send information from the brain to the hand. The company says the device, as yet unnamed, would let you navigate augmented-reality menus by just thinking about moving your finger to scroll.”

How can we best utilize the infinite patience, the ever-enhancing deep learning knowledge bases and the multimode communication facility of intelligent applications to further advance our mission? Adaptive learning is but a first step. With the rapid deployment of these AI technologies, one wonders how different higher education might look in the near future. Will these machine abilities replace important aspects of human-delivered teaching, tutoring, student support, counseling and other roles in a more economical, responsive, reliable and effective way?

Are you monitoring these developments and considering the implications for the next year or two? Is your institution upskilling, reskilling and preparing to lead these changes to welcome our new digital colleagues and friends?


This article originally was published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog. 

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

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.

Other UPCEA Updates + Blogs

Report: Who Stops Out of College and Why? (Inside Higher Ed)

[…] Jim Fong, chief research officer and director of the Center for Research and Strategy at UPCEA, said students will be greatly disadvantaged if colleges fail to anticipate the hurdles that cause them to leave. “Given the pandemic and the evolution of a new economy, one that relies on automation and information, students will be…

Read More

What I Wish I Knew at the Time: Negotiating Agreements

In the summer of 2021, UPCEA surveyed Institutional Representatives (IRs) and Chief Online Learning Officers (COLOs) in order to understand the issues senior leaders were wrestling with at their institutions. One of the topics found in survey responses had to do with working with service providers and vendors. The Council for Chief Online Learning Officers…

Read More

Why Do Students Leave College Before Finishing? New Study Looks at Common Scenarios. (EdSurge)

When a student stops out of college before getting a degree, the college should act fast if it wants to get them back. That’s because there’s a correlation between how long a student has been disengaged and the likelihood that they’ll return. “As soon as a student drops out or stops out or disengages, the…

Read More

42% of stopped-out young adults cited financial reasons for leaving college, survey finds (Higher Ed Dive)

[…] For college administrators, reenrolling students starts with acknowledging that students are stopping out in the first place, said Jim Fong, founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy. “Colleges often don’t want to admit how many students leave school before graduating,” Fong said. “Institutions don’t want to tell the community, ‘Oh, we lost…

Read More

2021 UPCEA MEMS Award Recipients Announced

11 Recipients Chosen For Three Award Categories WASHINGTON, D.C., December 2, 2021 — UPCEA, the leader in professional, continuing, and online education, has announced the recipients of the 2021 Crisis Management Marketing Award, 2021 Excellence in Enrollment Management Award, and the new Excellence in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness in Marketing, Enrollment, and Student Success Award. …

Read More

New Research Answers Question Every College Wants to Know: Why Do Students Leave and How Do We Get Them Back?

BALTIMORE, MD and WASHINGTON, D.C. (December 1, 2021) – UPCEA (University Professional and Continuing Education Association) and StraighterLine conducted a critical empirical research study profiling the disengaged learner to better understand their situations and motivations in relation to higher education. The study focused on individuals who have college credits but are no longer attending college…

Read More

Whether you need benchmarking studies, or market research for a new program, UPCEA Consulting is the right choice.

We know you. We know the challenges you face and we have the solutions you need. We speak your language and have been serving leaders like you for more than 100 years. UPCEA consultants are current or former continuing and online higher education professionals who are experts in the industry—put our expertise to work for you.

UPCEA is dedicated to advancing quality online learning at the institutional level. UPCEA is uniquely focused on excellence at the highest levels – leadership, administration, strategy – applying a macro lens to the online teaching and learning enterprise. Its engaged members include the stewards of online learning at most of the leading universities in the nation.

We offers a variety of custom research options through a variable pricing model.

Click here to learn more.

The Nation's Top Universities Choose UPCEA Consulting

Informed decisions. Ideas that work. The data you need. Trusted by the top universities in the nation.