North Carolina's public community colleges had a problem. Although the system had a wealth of learning resources faculty members could use to develop their courses, there was no simple way to share and organize those materials across all 58 campuses.
That will soon change, however, with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). Through the machine learning company Tanjo, the community college system is rolling out a custom AI "brain" in the coming months that will map and organize its digital content.
The new tool will be critical to linking faculty to relevant resources, said Richard Boyd, Tanjo's CEO. Rather than wade through thousands of files in disparate places, faculty members will be able to use the AI system to source documents of interest to them from a central location.
"Say a faculty member goes to a conference and learns about cloud computing ... and comes back with stuff they can use to build a new curriculum," Boyd explained. "That has been captured, it's mapped and it's made available to anybody else who's trying to do something similar. That's extraordinarily powerful."
The venture marks one of the largest digital mapping efforts in higher education to date. But perhaps more importantly, it shows how colleges can use emerging technologies like AI to streamline back-end tasks.
That is an area where colleges may be behind, said Paul Freedman, CEO and co-founder of investment firm Entangled Group. While companies have been looking to AI for years as a way to become more cost-effective, higher ed has been slower to follow suit.
"[That] is somewhat surprising if you compare the progression of higher education to other industries, where we're seeing a lot of people put their hands up saying how much money they've saved through these kinds of process improvements," Freedman said.
When colleges do turn over tasks to AI, the time savings can be huge. Although North Carolina's community colleges have yet to see what kind of success they'll achieve with their new system, it could mean far fewer hours spent searching and tagging content.
For Boyd, that's just the beginning. Although the AI system will initially feed from just one database, the North Carolina Learning Object Repository, it could soon be expanded to other systems as well.
"The more things it connects to, the smarter it gets and the more valuable it becomes to everybody," Boyd said. "That's going to be the difference between the winners and losers in the corporate environment. But certainly, among higher education, it's going to be who is most efficient at bringing the best resources to bear on these problems."
Back-end AI takes the front seat
Much of the attention on AI in higher ed has been focused on its student-facing uses. That's partly because colleges have been able to use it to make progress on a wide range of goals, from reducing summer melt through chatbots to teaching students Mandarin with AI-powered simulations.
Like others in the space, Sabih Bin Wasi was also focused on directly serving students when he founded Stellic, an academic advising platform. Frustrated by his own experiences with academic planning during college, the Carnegie Mellon University graduate developed the platform to help students figure out what courses they must complete in order to graduate and to point them to electives they may be interested in.
"The first year or two the focus was entirely on the student piece," Bin Wasi said. However, the Stellic team soon realized the platform could be useful for college advisers and administrators as well.
For advisers, Stellic can now perform degree audits, freeing up their time to have more meaningful advising sessions with students.
And for administrators, the platform can perform data analysis that helps them better understand which courses to offer and when to schedule them. That can be key to improving student retention, a recent Learning House report contends, as learners may drop out of college if required courses aren't available.
Automation's big breakthrough
Freedman expects AI will continue to play an important role in student-facing services. However, he added, budget constraints, coupled with proof AI can pay off, could soon be the catalyst for more back-end automation.
"It's not unusual that higher education tends to be later to try certain innovations that happen in broader industry, but it tends to not be a forever lag," Freedman said. “We're at the point where I think we're going to break through."
However, many colleges still face barriers to streamlining their back-end processes. For one, faculty and staff may be resistant to technology they fear could replace jobs. Moreover, many colleges may not have the funds needed to make an upfront investment in such tools.
That is one advantage four-year universities and systems could have to implement AI at scale. However, Freedman noted, the back-end efficiency the technology brings could have a greater impact on two-year colleges, which tend to have tighter budgets.
Colleges looking to embrace AI should frame the investment as a way to solve long-running issues and seek out partnerships to raise the profile of AI's use on campus, the Education Advisory Board recommends.
Freedman and Boyd agree using AI will be critical to a college's success.
"Those who get it right are going to prosper," Boyd said. "Those who don't won't be relevant for very long."