Online: Trending Now

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

The AI-Augmented Non-Teaching Academic in Higher Ed

Generative AI (GenAI) will bring innovations, efficiencies, creativity, and effectiveness to most all people who work at our colleges and universities in the coming year.

In the previous edition of Online: Trending Now, we looked at the AI tools and activities of the AI-augmented professor. Yet there are more staff members who support the learning process at most universities than there are those who directly teach the students. Let’s take a look at how AI will facilitate the work of the instructional designers, researchers, administrators, and other non-teaching professionals in colleges and universities this fall.

This comes in the context of Microsoft and LinkedIn’s 2024 Work Trend Index Report which surveyed some 31,000 people across 31 countries, uncovering rather surprising facts along the way. Bret Kinsella in Synthedia writes: “The report found that 78% of knowledge workers bring their own AI (BYOAI) to work. For GenZ, the figure is 85%. However, even Baby Boomers are BYOAI at a rate of 73%.” This phenomenal trend has unfolded in just one year. Citing the same large survey by Microsoft and LinkedIn, Sabrina Ortiz writes in ZD Net that “AI skills are so much of a priority that the report suggests 66% of business leaders wouldn’t hire someone without AI skills, and 71% of leaders would prefer to hire a less experienced candidate with AI skills than a more experienced candidate without them.”

Many instructional designers are among the BYOAI group who use GenAI tools on a daily basis to create graphics, images and audio segments for university classes. Having an AI-enhanced toolset available at home as well as work allows for seamless hybrid working that appeals to many designers. While OpenAI’s Sora that generates full-motion videos from prompts, is only available to a limited number of testers now, it is expected to be released soon. Content generation can be tailored for transitions by instructional designers, who often use multiple chatbots with citations to ensure accurate and precise, quotable materials for classes. The flow and design of classes, culminating in learning outcomes, may also be recommended by GenAI to the instructional designer.

A favorite approach of mine to learning design is mastery learning. While mastery learning modules can be constructed manually, a number of automated, AI-driven systems are available to speed up the process and bring a standardized process to the delivery and assessment of learning, while enabling personalization of learning along the way.

University researchers have been using AI applications for years. The new release of multiple expansive large language models facilitates the collection and analysis of data that can be run in a secure environment, “air-gapped” from the public internet and secured on university computers that are not connected outside the research environment. The integration of many of the current chatbots with common tools of analysis, presentation and publication facilitate the creation and delivery of research reports. Further, GenAI can uncover less obvious correlations, causes, effects and trends that might otherwise not be obvious to researchers. Especially when working with multiple datasets, new associations can be uncovered that can make the research much more valuable.

Deans, directors and department heads or chairs also have much to gain from use of GenAI. Of course, we must be careful not to use confidential personnel or financial data in the prompts that we submit to open large language models. Depending upon the level of security, volume, complexity and isolation of data that is required, there is, however, the advent of Small Language Models (SLMs) that are surprisingly powerful when operating on small platforms, such as smart phones. With connectivity turned off, these devices are not connected to the internet (air-gapped), maintaining security and privacy.

As Joinal Ahmed of Microsoft reports “Small Language Models (SLMs) represent a focused subset of artificial intelligence tailored for specific enterprise needs within Natural Language Processing (NLP). Unlike their larger counterparts like GPT-4, SLMs prioritize efficiency and precision over sheer computational power. They are trained on domain-specific datasets, enabling them to navigate industry-specific terminologies and nuances with accuracy.” This means that privacy is retained by maintaining all prompts, data, processing and results in an environment that is not connected to the cloud.

In this secure environment, administrators can ask apps to perform personnel, budget, and organizational comparisons, analyses and recommendations without exposing the data to possible discovery by others. For example, an administrator can input the college or department budget onto the app and perform an offline analysis of expenditures as well as prompt the app to run budget scenarios for 10% or 20% reductions while optimizing outcomes such as ROI, student enrollment and student success.

In less-secure outward facing analyses, an administrator can ask for a search of public records to identify details of the student enrollments in analogous departments at competing universities. GenAI can compare publicly available enrollment demographic data to construct a more effective enrollment plan and associated marketing budget. In addition, administrators may want to project future industry hiring in fields associated with degrees and certificates offered or planned by the university. The GenAI tools can find and assemble data that we simply did not consider in the past for powerful analyses and recommendations.

In the highly-competitive atmosphere of higher education recruiting, American universities are often pressured by uncertain funding and political interventions that may modify long-standing policies upon which the public had relied. In response to these pressures, universities must have access to the best data, the most powerful analyses, and the most innovative recommendations to enhance recruiting and enrollment in order to cover the ever-rising expenses. We are now facing the closure of one college or university every single week in 2024. GenAI can provide the creativity, backed by sound data and analyses that might make the difference between a balanced budget and the slippery slope toward closure.

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

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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