How blockchain, virtual assistants and AI are changing higher ed

Fibo Quantum

Dive Brief:

  • In the coming years, advanced technologies like mixed reality, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and virtual assistants could play a bigger role at colleges and universities, according to a new report from Educause, a nonprofit focused on IT’s role in higher ed.
  • The 2019 Horizon Report, based on a panel of higher ed experts, zeroes in on trends, challenges and developments in educational technology. Challenges range from the “solvable,” such as improving digital fluency and increasing demand for digital learning experiences, to the “wicked.” The latter includes rethinking teaching and advancing digital equity.
  • The panel contemplated blockchain’s use in higher ed for the first time in the 2019 report. Specifically, the authors looked at its potential for creating alternative forms of academic records that “could follow students from one institution to another, serving as verifiable evidence of learning and enabling simpler transfer of credits across institutions.”

Dive Insight:

The Educause report looks broadly at how a variety of technologies might become more woven into the fabric of higher ed and help address some of its long-term challenges.

With blockchain, the authors considered how it might fit in a broader push toward lifelong learning by recording and verifying student learning in school, in the workplace and in other contexts. The technology could “could provide the means for individual students to maintain an accurate record of their knowledge and skills,” they write. “This could be invaluable, particularly for students who transfer among several institutions or those who want to transition, for example, from military service into higher education and the civilian workplace.”

The push for digital credentials to be more easily shareable and verifiable through technology such as blockchain is picking up steam. Earlier this week, nine universities announced an initiative to explore the development of digital academic records, including badges, certifications, internships and traditional degrees, and the use of technologies such as blockchain to support them.

One of the participants, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, piloted the concept in 2017 by giving about 100 of its graduates a digital version of their degrees, which are verified against the blockchain and shareable via a companion mobile app.

This year’s Educause report also examines the emergence of virtual assistants. Although they are primarily a consumer technology — such as Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Home — a handful of universities have adapted them to support students, such as by helping them with academic and financial aid advising. The report notes Northeastern University’s “Husky Helper” virtual assistant, which responds to the top 20 questions students asked the university’s call center over the past three years.

As AI and virtual assistants’ conversational capacity advance, applications in higher ed could come to include research, tutoring, writing and editing, as well as in adaptive learning platforms. Some, though, are concerned about the technology’s passive listening capabilities and other privacy concerns. As with blockchain, the authors gauge the time to adoption of the technology at four to five years away.

Colleges are already using AI more broadly to deliver digital push notifications to students to help them complete their work and to monitor learning development, the report notes. It also holds the potential to make college more accessible, including for students with disabilities, such as by scanning class materials for accessibility issues, improving learning tools and creating personalized resources.

As technology takes over campuses, college operations and learning itself, one of the hardest-to-solve challenges that the report identifies becomes all the more relevant: digital equity. The report notes survey data showing 7% of students had no or poor access to internet at home in the last 12 months, and access to broadband remains unequal across the globe.