Using AI in a hybrid environment to improve the student experience

The pandemic galvanised universities into improving the online learning experience for students – but as coverage of the sector indicates, there’s still a way to go.

The Covid-19 outbreak saw universities race to improve their online learning offering. Many institutions ran with the assumption that the best solution was to create an online experience that duplicates the in-person reality. Some universities have already moved back to learning online for most students for the last few days of the term after a significant uptick in cases – a decision that strongly points to the need for institutions to prepare for a long-term future of flexible, hybrid learning.

In this regard, educational technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be a significant part of that future. For example, AI has been used for some time to automate assessment and grading systems and, in some cases, suggest specific learning interventions for individual learners. But can it be used to develop better learner experiences for students while supporting staff?

What do students want?

A survey of over 3,000 students by Pearson and WonkHE across England and Wales identified the need for greater access to resources, better organisation and course structure, and “online content that was actually interactive rather than just point and click.”

Findings from the study also strongly supported the student need for interaction with teaching staff and their peers – emphasizing consistency over time and across faculties, particularly when navigating processes, exchanging ideas, and reducing isolation and loneliness.

These findings are further supported by the paper, Technology-enabled learning at scale: A roadmap to 2030, produced by Emerge Education, Jisc, and LearningMate. Jisc’s research suggests that although learners may appear to be self-sufficient in using technology, some of the needs that help them get the best from online learning aren’t immediately apparent.

Our research shows students expect their learning experience to be interactive, engaging, accessible, and enjoyable. They especially like the flexible and convenient nature of learning online.

The current approach to online learning

Let’s take our minds back to March 2020. Corporate organisations that had planned to deliver face-to-face events had to shift gears and switch to an online delivery method. But it quickly became apparent that attendees (even those who had paid to sign up) were just a click or two away from leaving. Sitting far away from the buzz of a collaborative conference, there was little to keep customers, analysts, and buyers in front of a lengthy PowerPoint presentation.

The same applies to the online student experience. Student retention and support has long been a challenge for universities over the years of face-to-face delivery – while student services and faculty departments tried and tested various ways of simplifying the path through a labyrinth of VLEs, apps, FAQs, social media accounts and blogs – seemingly no one has yet found the holy grail.

Using AI to put students at the front of mind

How could AI be used in your institution? Here are four possible ways that AI could be used to support staff and students by enhancing hybrid teaching and learning and reducing processes and workflows:

  1. Managing the welfare of staff and students: identifying early trends of non-engagement from students in online attendance, not submitting assignments, or not attending counselling sessions. This could be used as an automated method of flagging the need for intervention before a student becomes at risk of struggling further. 
  2. Repurposing content for flexibility: teaching materials take time for staff to develop and keep up-to-date. AI could be used to augment this by repurposing content so that it is in formats that can be flexible enough to pivot from face-to-face to online delivery in places that are easy to find and access.
  3. Accessibility and inclusion: AI can recognise trends and patterns of how and when learning materials are accessed and make recommendations for different needs based on this. For example, automated analytics that identifies students who benefit more from audio or video learning can help to ensure that resources are available for them to get the most of their learning experience in a format that supports their learning style.
  4. Time-saving automation: at the start of the academic year, students depend on learning resources for reading lists, which the library requires to make sure that sufficient copies and licences are available. This can present a significant time pressure for academic staff, especially when delivering multiple topics at various levels. In addition, once resource lists have been confirmed, they have to be added to individual teaching modules on the VLE and made available to the correct teaching staff and students. AI could automate this process and reduce workflows and dependencies across several different institution areas. 

Finding the solution 

As Graham Galbraith, vice-chancellor, University of Portsmouth, noted:

“It is inevitable that even traditional establishments will need to move towards using blended learning and fully digital models. Those that do not plan for this will ultimately lose out. If UK HE does not embrace this reality, then I fear that our international reputation as the best in the world could well be compromised.” (June 2021) Technology-enabled learning at scale.

As the Omicron variant cuts through the UK population, the new year will likely bring more adjustments to how teaching and learning are delivered. And universities are aware that those courses pose more challenges with a more practical element. So while it may be too soon to implement AI, this is yet another opportunity for institutions to really understand what their students want, take lessons from the past and apply them to improve the student experience in the short term.

The disruption again may also be enough of a wake-up call for institutions to plan, as Graham Galbraith advises, and start to think about what their AI future may hold.

Here at LearningMate, we’re experts in the field of online teaching and learning. We’re at the forefront of these advancements and are already supporting our clients to transform how they present their content and use their platforms for better learning experiences. Using our knowledge of HE and understanding of AI, we can support you in making your student experience seamless, personalised, and engaging through AI. 

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