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In less than 10 years, the connected university has become the norm. Where will we be in ten more years? This article explores the journey over the last ten years and where we might be in the future. In 2009, I became the Vice Chancellor of the University System of Georgia and my first task was to replace the learning management system (LMS) for 35 of the 36 universities in the system. We went through a yearlong shared governance process that has resulted in the selection of a single system for the 35 universities and rapid innovation by the faculty to take advantage of the new system functionality. The faculty created 160,000 new courses and close to 40 terabytes of pedagogical material. With the previous system, we could integrate new functionality through a third-party add-on every 18 months. In the new system, we were adding new functionality every two weeks on average. When I left in 2015, there were more than 60 additional applications in the system providing an exceptional agile mechanism of pedagogical innovation.
"The intelligent agents work to improve graduation, retention and progression rates by engaging students intrusively"
If we think back to 2009, there were spirited discussions about traditional classes, hybrid classes, and online classes. Today, the modern LMS supports all of those modes of class delivery. At my current institution, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), all undergraduate classes have at least a dynamic syllabus within the LMS that students can easily download into their mobile device calendar. All undergraduate classes are part of the connected university. Many classes have much more including intelligent agents that act on behalf of the instructor to engage the students when appropriate. Let me give you two examples of these intelligent agents.
The intelligent agents work to improve graduation, retention and progression rates by engaging students intrusively. If students stop using the learning management system for x number of days (determined by each faculty member), the system automatically emails the student on behalf of the faculty member to see if everything is ok and if the faculty member can help. The email also reminds the student that keeping up with the course material is the key to their success. Having used the system for the last couple of years, the system has a 100 percent response rate from students who vow and do change their behavior and start to consume course material routinely on the LMS.
The second set of intelligent agents engage the students based on their performance on evaluations. If a student does well, the intelligent agents detect the performance and send on behalf of the professor a congratulatory email. If the student performs poorly, a different email is sent automatically to help get the student back on track. The students believe the emails are coming directly from the faculty member and deeply appreciate the personal attention. They often comment on the humor and compassion in the email not knowing the message originated from an intelligent agent. UAB is not alone. Perhaps one of the more advanced developers of intelligent agents is Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech utilizes intelligent agents to combat plagiarism/cheating, grade assignments, and answer student questions. The university is not only connected; it is becoming increasingly intelligent.
In short, in ten years, the entire conversation about the connected university has transformed from one of the categories and mutually exclusive offerings to one in which every undergraduate course at a university has a connected component. I believe the work at Georgia Tech and similar universities portend the future. We will seem more intelligent agents augmenting the capabilities of the faculty so that we stop treating faculty members and researchers as the most expensive typists on the planet and instead maximize the benefit of their disciplinary expertise and teaching prowess. Let me give you a personal example. I believe that technology leaders should consume their own technology so I routinely teach classes (6-7 a year). It helps me understand the pain points of the faculty and address issues quickly. I tend to get the same questions (with the same answers) from students every semester. I have refined the course syllabus, built YouTube movies to answer the questions, recorded all my classes, built a snarky frequently asked questions section to my courses, and even went so far is to have a folder of pre-scripted answers to these questions in my email client. Yet, I spend a good portion of my time answering the same questions repeatedly; semester after semester. In lean six sigma terms, this is non-utilized talent. In more pedestrian terms, I become a very expensive typist focused on the mundane instead of value-added tasks. UAB and other universities are implementing Chatbot technology to automate these tasks so that I can focus on more value-added tasks associated with teaching, research, and service.
So where will we be in ten years? More connected. More effective. More value-added. At its core, it will be very much the same – to educate and inspire the next generation of leaders of our world. How higher education accomplishes that core mission will likely be a more intentional, intelligent, and connected university.