As higher education costs continue to rise, students bear the ultimate burden of choosing the right school, major, and delivery format to maximize post-graduation success. Unlike previous generations, millennials and adult learners are searching for alternatives to full-time, on-campus programs, and universities are eager to offer non-traditional routes to a degree.
Distance learning programs have existed since the 1980s, but technological innovation, content scalability, and widespread mobile adoption have enabled the online degree program to be a competitive option for aspiring students. Long gone are the days of aggressive marketing tactics and empty promises made by degree mills and unaccredited for-profit universities. Today, a learner can enroll in competitive bachelor’s and master’s programs at U Penn, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, NYU, and more. Often, the virtual programs can pass tuition savings of 25-50% to enrolled candidates.
Take, for example, the Georgia Institute of Technology. An elite public institution, Georgia Tech boasts proud figures of #35 for national university rankings and #8 for best computer science programs. Backed by a $2 million investment from AT&T and a desire to democratize education by expanding beyond physical class sizes, Georgia Tech spun up a Master of Computer Science degree delivered asynchronously in a virtual environment. The total price tag? ~$7,000 USD.
Georgia Tech is not alone. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign suspended their on-campus MBA program to transition into an iMBA online, enrollment in individual online courses is tracking upwards year-over-year, and 25% of universities are expected to fail in the next 20 years due to heavy losses incurred by pricy facilities and declining student registration.
The acceleration of online-based learning has its benefits, but it isn’t a silver bullet. However, a set of next-generation improvements facilitated by artificial intelligence (AI) stands to completely change the virtual experience.
The AI Advantage
To improve the current teaching model in which the teacher is the source of knowledge and the student is the recipient, we need to fundamentally reimagine the role of an educator in the university system. Advances in automated assignment grading and remote monitoring services (e.g. Proctorio) allow instructors to forego repetitive, time-intensive tasks and instead dedicate their saved time to higher-value work. For students that don’t thrive in the regular classroom setting, AI-enabled learning management systems (LMS) can deploy surveys to categorize individuals into distinct learning buckets (e.g. visual, auditory, text), which can provide effective and targeted content that fits with each preferred learning style. Beyond just identification of preferences, the platforms can also break down long-form lectures and reading assignments into smaller, atomic components that are easily digestible.
For international students, the language barrier may complicate progress, but cutting-edge research in text translation and machine learning aims to create deep-learning systems that can translate English lectures into the student’s native tongue. Similar technologies in voice recognition and text summarization can transcribe an entire lecture with stunning accuracy and reduce paragraphs of text into just the relevant bullet points for review. Machine learning algorithms can similarly be deployed over a course curriculum to flag areas of bias, complexity, and ambiguity for closer review by the instructor.
The climb is slow, but students, teachers, and administrations will no doubt reap the benefits of AI as it evolves and matures over the next decade. The question of whether this field will be disrupted by a tech company, university, or research organization is still up for debate.