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Int’l education debates AI wins and warnings

One of the topics highlighted during sessions at spring conferences, such as NAFSA, ASU +GSV and DETcon, was AI and its implications on the international education sector.

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Regardless of participants’ roles or other demographics, a similar theme of cautious optimism emerged

While some stakeholders indicated early AI conversation fatigue, particularly around ChatGPT, others asserted that the sector has just scratched the surface.

Global engagement education technology provider Terra Dotta, announced plans to integrate generative AI into its global engagement platform. Discussing the new feature at NAFSA, the company said it will be applied to automate pre-determined education abroad and international education marketing communications processes.

Terra Dotta proffered automation will “[streamline] administrative tasks”, freeing up time and resources of university global engagement offices, resulting in additional time for personalised student supports.

Erik Larson, CTO of Terra Dotta, noted the often understaffed and under resourced global education offices that find themselves on the receiving end of increasing numbers of study abroad applications that have surpassed pre-pandemic numbers.

“The growth is phenomenal,” Larson said, “but international education pros need more support and AI has shown to be a valuable way to address resource challenges.”

Using the new AI tools, Terra Dotta said it will be able to increase the editorial capacity of global offices at HEIs, assisting staff with the automation of initial communications. Additionally, repetitive tasks will be eliminated. Examples of some of the work AI will automate are the creation of emails, brochures, and texts, which can be completed in minutes. As well, the topic and tone can be customised based on the target audience.

“The focus should be less on what we can do with AI and more on what we should do”

Marcus DeWitt, founder and director of Blue Ivy Coaching, also weighed in on potential implications of AI in the field. “I think there’s a lot of potential. The main question I have is about its precision.

“It’s important to understand that to go from a 90% to a 99% step up, is going to take a while. The challenge I see with companies at the forefront is that we work in an industry where the information you need to provide is very precise. And imprecision can lead to disaster. It can be pretty catastrophic when misinformation is provided to a student.”

That said, DeWitt countered, “Ultimately, the real centrepiece of the conversation shouldn’t be the advisor or the counsellor, but the student. And if AI built into a high-touch, human-based advising service, then I’m all for it.”

Likewise, Education Rethink co-founder and managing director Anna Esaki-Smith highlighted both sides of the coin in her recent white paper, co-authored by Duolingo English Test’s senior strategic engagement executive Lindsay Addington.

In the report, entitled, The impact of generative AI on higher education: Voices from the field, the authors contend, “The impact of AI is not without concerns and limitations for the higher education sector, which include algorithmic bias, academic integrity, and data protection.”

They also highlighted the potential lack of human interaction inherent in the process and that it may lead to fewer opportunities for students to cultivate their critical thinking skills.

“As AI becomes further integrated into higher education, we must critically evaluate its benefits and drawbacks in order to develop proper guidelines for ensuring that it is used responsibly,” Esaki-Smith and Addington asserted.

In conducting their qualitative study, they interviewed stakeholders from across the sector. Yet, regardless of participants’ roles or other demographics, a similar theme of cautious optimism emerged.

Participants acknowledged potential AI benefits for students, noting the use of ChatGPT to help find admissions and scholarship information quickly, thus “disrupting” the field of education consultants and agents and the application services provide.

“There is a significant opportunity for AI to serve as an efficiency-gainer and to change the pace of evolution in education,” said John Wilkerson, AVP for international services at Indiana University, in the report.

Julie Collins, assistant dean of graduate admissions and financial aid at Northwestern Medill, spoke in the report about the benefits of AI for international students, stating, “International students want to use all the tools available to them to be successful in [the] admissions process to go to that top-tier school.

“Studying abroad at a desirable university has been a goal and could be a game-changer for them and even their family,” she added.

The concept of ethics was also highlighted by all participants in the study. “To better understand and address the ethical implications of AI systems, we must better understand the potential biases in training data and prompt engineering,” said Esaki-Smith and Addington. And they said to accomplish this will require a multidisciplinary approach.

“As we continue to evolve and adapt to new technologies, the focus should be less on what we can do with AI and more on what we should do,” they summarised.

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