5 Ways AI Is Impacting Higher Education

A look at a new report by BOND Capital's Mary Meeker on AI's influence on higher education and how universities must adapt to the changing education landscape.
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Venture capitalist Mary Meeker is perhaps best known for her annual Internet Trends report, which has been published for over two decades. The industry has closely watched and admired her insights into tech. This week, her team at Bond Capital released a new report examining the relationship between artificial intelligence and higher education.

Though not as lengthy as her iconic trend presentation—16 pages versus hundreds of slides— the research reveals AI’s growth can affect all aspects of “learning, teaching, understanding, and decision making” while calling for academia to take a leadership role in helping determine how the technology can best be used to strengthen society.

In this special edition of The AI Economy,” here are the five ways Meeker believes AI’s impact on higher education will be “significant.”

The Internet Has ‘Materially Altered’ Education Over the Past 25 Years, and AI Will Do The Same, Only Faster and Bigger

Google, social media, YouTube and e-learning platforms have made learning even more accessible beyond the physical classroom. Anyone searching for knowledge need not enroll in an academic institution to gain certification. They can open a YouTube video or take a LinkedIn Learning, Udacity, or Coursera course to get started. The gamified nature makes learning more tolerable than sitting for hours inside a lecture hall. Meeker highlights Duolingo as an example of how “technology-enabled remote real-time learning can be captivating and effective.”

Large language models are emerging to become a “real-time phenomenon” in this area. They help process massive quantities of data and identify patterns while generating multimodal responses to create engaging student education experiences.

The Increase in Higher Education Macro Tradeoffs Creates Opportunity for AI

Lower performance by American high schools, the rising educational cost of post-high school learning, worrying student debt and government fiscal irresponsibility threaten the prestige of U.S. colleges and universities. This suggests that students may feel inclined to technological alternatives that let them go at their own pace, are much more affordable, and are personalized to them.

Universities Must Identify Their Lanes of Excellence as Technology-Driven Changes Reshape Higher Education

As higher education changes with technological innovation, Meeker believes universities must adapt by focusing on their strengths and reevaluating their stance on education and student relationships to remain competitive and prominent. Academia must better understand what a Return on Investment means to students, especially when faced with rising educational costs. Suppose students feel they won’t receive their money’s worth. In that case, they won’t attend college, and the decrease in new student enrollment will negatively impact the institution, putting it on the path to a potential shutdown.

They must also adapt to prepare students for a new labor market dramatically impacted by AI. While technology streamlines workloads and offers convenience, its introduction eliminates some jobs that need to be done, affecting how students think about their education. Why graduate with a degree in computer science when there are AI assistants such as GitHub Copilot, Oracle Assist, and IBM’s Watsonx to replace manual labor?

Meeker calls for universities to establish best-in-class and storied individual programs to attract top young talent. Having leadership in a specific market or domain is critically important. “Think Carnegie Mellon/MIT/Stanford in Computer Science; Harvard/Johns Hopkins/Penn in Medicine; and West Point/Naval Academy/Air Force Academy in Defense and Leadership,” she writes. “Outsized success has a simple formula that is extremely difficult to accomplish, let alone sustain over time.”

“The reality is that younger students (and lifelong learners) are getting smarter about their learning options, costs and returns. They will be aggressive voters with their time and money.”

The Best Time to Be a Self-Motivated Student, But What About For Teachers and Universities?

Without question, AI is making learning easier for students to continue their education. It makes searching for answers faster and more convenient as natural language queries can be used versus struggling to type specific keywords that would return the most accurate results in search engines. Universities would be wise to find ways to use these technology breakthroughs best to improve their student’s academic experience.

Meeker observes that how teachers teach will change with AI. “For teachers, optimizing to accelerate learning with that evolving foundation—including students who don’t want to (or can’t) attend a one-off lecture in person—will be a new art form. On the research side, technical resource availability, such as GPU access, will likely be key to differentiation/leadership.”

Artificial intelligence can benefit teachers just like students, and we’re seeing some of those innovations coming from software providers today. The technology can help educators develop personalized learning plans, develop courses, support grading and classroom management, and combat burnout. In addition, AI can help deliver on-demand feedback, coaching, and accessible learning, no matter the situation.

Academia Needs to Revitalize Their Missions and Reaffirm American Values

AI’s rise is forcing many universities to undergo a mindset change. Meeker states that these institutions must rethink how they embody American values of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, democracy, equality, freedom and capitalism. In a period filled with rising conflicts, colleges and universities must show students and educators there are advantages and opportunities for them.

Universities must also evaluate how they’ll remain competitive in research. Leading institutions don’t have the resources to pay for GPUs, and the associated AI compute power costs. Regarding AI, they’re trailing the private sector in developing foundation models. Meeker says universities must develop “creative ways to partner with industry” to provide students with AI processing power. Failure to do so could result in talented young engineers departing or outright skipping college to work in tech. And it could force teachers to leave.

“AI creates once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for evolution, creativity, and leadership…As these things are, it’s riddled with risks. Now, we need to focus, galvanize attention and minimize our mistakes,” Meeker concludes. “Ultimately, bringing AI to learning and teaching requires what (Khan Academy founder) Sal Kahn calls ‘educated bravery.’ While technologies developing in real-time are always unpredictable, their thoughtful use may well prove exponentially beneficial to students and teachers alike. We should not be paranoid and restrictive about utilizing these technologies, but thoughtfully curious.”

▶️ Read Mary Meeker’s full report here (Bond Capital)

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