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AI helping higher education during the pandemic

By using AI and analytics, higher education schools can gauge how their students are faring at scale during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the coronavirus threat loomed in March, colleges and universities scrambled to move classes online. Across the U.S., schools closed their physical locations and pivoted, with only a few days' time, to entirely remote learning.

The shift put a strain on schools and students alike, forcing schools to quickly deploy online learning tools, as well as analytics and AI in higher education, to keep classes and administrative operations running as smoothly as possible.

Tough on students

Using analytics AI in higher education, schools can measure how well students are holding up during this unprecedented time, both academically and emotionally.

Jenzabar, Boston-based vendor of an ERP platform and a student information system for higher education schools, uses analytics to help schools track student behavior.

Colleges have shut down their campuses, but they have not made a clean transition to online learning. Instead, they have simply moved their teaching materials, normally meant for in-person teaching, online, which is a poor substitute for an actual online class, said Stephanie Thompson, senior data scientist at Jenzabar and adjunct professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

"We're seeing a very rapid conversion by faculties to utilize online systems," Thompson said.

That rapid conversion, along with the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic, has left higher education schools struggling to connect with students, as well as gauge the student body's reactions to the changes.

We're seeing a very rapid conversion by faculties to utilize online systems.
Stephanie ThompsonSenior data scientist, Jenzabar

Jenzabar's products include integrated services for registration and course management, student communications, gradebooks and administrative workloads. Schools can use the portfolio to manage student data and make a variety of predictions, such as when students will typically log in to the system or which classes will be the most popular, based on that data.

"There were some fairly consistent patterns with behavior of students prior to going completely online," Thompson said. The pandemic disrupted those patterns, leaving schools in the dark about their students predicted behaviors.

Schools using the Jenzabar platform, however, are beginning to gain some understanding into their students' behaviors as the platform picks up on new student patterns.

Students, historically, rarely logged in on Saturday, but generally logged in Sunday. Now, however, many more students are logging in to school systems on Saturday indicating that students' studying and schoolwork schedules are different. The vendor is also seeing more online discussion posts from professors, and more students engaging in those discussion posts.

"There is a pattern that seems to be emerging, but there is much more variability," Thompson said.

With a pattern, or partial pattern in place, professors can make adjustments to their teaching styles, finance offices can adjust their budget predictions and advisors can see if a particular problem affects just one student, or if it's a problem for students throughout the school.

Chatbots in education

Universities have also begun deploying chatbots to interact with students and measure their behaviors.

EdSights is a New York-based vendor of an SMS message-based chatbot for universities. Typically, the bot assumes the persona of a school's mascot. It asks students about their academics and connects with the appropriate school resources based on their answers, while gathering data on a school's students.

During the pandemic, the startup is giving away a COVID-19 chatbot to colleges and universities.

The prebuilt SMS chatbot, offers students wellness tips and information about the coronavirus. The bot also asks more personal questions, including if the virus has affected the student's work in any way or if the student is struggling to complete tasks.

The questions are phrased in a friendly and relatable way, using emojis and casual language and students have responded surprisingly well to them, said Carolina Recchi, co-CEO and co-founder of EdSights.

AI in higher ed, EdSights
Higher education schools are turning to AI and analytics after the coronavirus forced them to take classes online.

Opening up

Connecting with a bot, rather than a person, has appeared to free students to open up about their experiences. According to Recchi, many students have written long answers to the bot's questions, detailing their experiences.

The bot, based on the answers, can then connect students to school resources, such as the wellness center. If a student's answer is troubling, such as expressing they are having a particularly difficult time during the pandemic, the bot will ask if the student would like to connect with a school staff member.

"Ultimately, the chatbot ends up being a really powerful way to engage the students at scale," Recchi said.

Universities have responded well to EdSights' COVID-19 chatbot initiative, too. EdSights, which has about 40 customers in total, onboarded at least 25 new schools because of the free initiative.

The onboarding process is fast, as EdSights launches the bots remotely. The whole setup generally takes less than two hours, Recchi said.

Not all good

Yet, despite the new efforts higher education schools are taking, some students are still struggling. Maddie Morris, a junior at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts had to switch to entirely online courses in March.

For someone not used to taking mostly online classes, Morris said the transition has been difficult.

"It's harder to communicate with teachers ... because you don't have that face-to-face time to work out a problem," she said. "It's very isolating"

Bridgewater uses a text-based chatbot to routinely check in with students and send them reminders about upcoming administrative deadlines, and the bot has increased its messages since the coronavirus pandemic.

Morris, however, doesn't find them helpful. Rather, she said, it's an annoyance to constantly get messages from the school.

"It's mostly reminders asking about if you knew about deadlines with some emojis mixed in," she said.

Still, while the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on students and schools, it may help modernize higher education schools.

It's likely the coronavirus pandemic will push higher education institutes, typically slow to adopt new technologies, to adopt and deploy more AI technologies, said Meghan Turjanica, product manager for analytics and student success at Jenzabar.

 "It's a trial by fire," she said.

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