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

[Snap Poll Results] Outsourcing and PCO Units

As the U.S. economy shows signs of emerging from the pandemic, colleges and universities are making decisions about the fall. Professional, continuing and online (PCO) education units also need to make decisions about new programs they were planning to launch pre-pandemic, systems they had budgeted for upgrade, and staffing that they may have postponed. It…

Read More

UPCEA Recognizes University of Phoenix for Excellence in Online Learning

University of Phoenix receives recognition for a high-quality online education program   WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 6, 2021) — UPCEA, the association for college and university leaders in professional, continuing, and online education, announced today that the University of Phoenix successfully completed the UPCEA Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership Review program, demonstrating consistent excellence throughout…

Read More

Evaluating Online Teaching: Interviewing Instructors with 10+ Years Experience

We have been discussing online learning efficacy since its inception, with conversations and research focusing on factors such as student outcomes, pedagogy, student support, and community building in online courses and programs. All of these areas of focus are important, as they can point to best practices when designing, developing, and implementing online education. However,…

Read More

Biden Administration Introduces FY 2022 Discretionary Budget, American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan | Policy Matters (April 2021)

Major Updates Biden Administration Introduces FY 2022 Discretionary Budget, American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan Over the past month, on the heels of passing the American Rescue Plan, we have now been provided with the Biden Administration’s outlay for the second and third stages of its “build back better” vision, in addition to the…

Read More

Students Want Online Learning Options Post-Pandemic (Inside Higher Ed)

When colleges switched to emergency remote instruction last year, some online learning advocates feared the hasty transition would leave students with a negative impression of online learning. While more pre-pandemic online courses resulted from months of careful planning and significant financial investment, few instructors enjoyed these luxuries last spring. Despite the challenges and shortcomings of…

Read More

Global Digital Badges Market (2021 to 2026) – Growth, Trends, COVID-19 Impact, and Forecasts (Yahoo!Finance)

Dublin, April 08, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — The “Digital Badges Market – Growth, Trends, COVID-19 Impact, and Forecasts (2021 – 2026)” report has been added to’s offering. The digital badges market is expected to register a CAGR of 22.5% during the forecast period (2021 – 2026). A Digital Badge signifies the accomplishments or skills for its holder and…

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.