It’s important to remember that the true value of higher education is not quantifiable. I remember in my four years at Ohio University, reading the words of the Northwest Ordinance on the Class Gateway: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” When these words were written in 1787, they recognized that education is about making a better society. Without a solid education system, our early legislators wrote, the government will go awry. Without an education system, we even threaten our collective human happiness.
What a concept! How often do we have a discussion about education making us happier? We often hear about “blissful ignorance,” but I would contend there is nothing blissful about ignorance. There is a vibrancy in life waiting for us to discover it, and education is a key way to find it. Think of how a broader vocabulary helps us express ourselves. Remember the joy of discovering something new: like the first time you learned about that fish with a lantern on his head. Think of the humility in understanding our place in human history or the depths of our intertwined cultures. As artificial intelligence gains ground in our society, it’s more important that we encourage the things that make us uniquely human.
All Students Are Now Nontraditional Students
While the full value of education is hard to quantify, the effectiveness of institutions can be quantified. Without getting a good handle on data, the modern institutions that supply higher education (or education in general) will miss the target. They will become at best irrelevant, and at worst, insolvent. An institution’s data defines the connection between the student and the institution.
But clearly, our basic understanding of “student” has changed. The trend in higher education for the last decade or so has been toward serving nontraditional students. The National Center for Education Statistics defines nontraditional students as those who are 24 and older. At that age, many of these students are working full-time jobs and have families and other responsibilities. Very few of these students fit the campus-bound 18-year-olds we traditionally think of as college students. But with the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, this trend has accelerated. In a sense, all students are now nontraditional.
With this amorphous relationship with lifelong learners, tracking relationships with people is the first step. From a marketing perspective, understanding the needs of a pool of learners can help institutions establish the right courses and programs, and deliver the way learners want to engage with them. Getting this relationship right is now the brand of the institution.
The Strategic Core: Data and AI
A joint statement produced last year by The Association for Institutional Research, EDUCAUSE, and the National Association of College and University Business Officers should be foundational for all institutions. As they say, “With the change-making capacity of analytics, we should be moving aggressively forward to harness the power of these new tools for the success of our institutions and our students. However, so far higher education has failed to follow talk with decisive action.”
This statement came out before Coronavirus disrupted every institution on the planet. Needless to say, data — and the ability to act on it — is the most important asset an institution has. It’s also important to note that when an organization talks about the need for analytics the first impulse is to find the right tool. We at Atrium certainly have strong opinions on what tools are best for analytics, but most institutions are already awash in software tools. A data analytics tool is only as good as the data being put into them, and very often institutional data is a mess. The first step before buying any new tools is to analyze what questions an institution needs to ask of the data, and where that data is. The following are key capabilities higher education institutions will need:
Use Artificial Intelligence to Connect to the Right Learners
The private sector has figured this out when it comes to finding the right customers and matching them with products. For higher education institutions to survive, they need to get this capability right. Predictive modeling can look at a pool of learners and connect them through marketing automation to the content they need.
Find Which Students Who Need What Kind of Intervention When?
With limited resources, it’s important that institutions are efficient. Relying on students to raise their hands and ask for help has never worked in the past. In a more remote learning environment, learners may not even know what resources are available, and those resources may not be available at the times they need them. The right assistance — whether it’s academic, psychological, financial — should be brought to the students that need it. Artificial intelligence and data analysis can make this possible.
Make Learning More Personalized
Nontraditional learners come to higher education with a less uniform academic experience. AI enables instructors to tailor education to meet the needs of each individual student. AI-enabled guided pathways can make learning more engaging and connected to career and life goals. Ultimately, getting people the education they need to reach their goals is what it is all about.
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