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Educational institutions will benefit from AI: Microsoft-IDC study

Sep 23. 2019
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By The Nation

Artificial intelligence (AI) will help higher educational institutions accelerate innovation, increase competitiveness and witness better student engagement, according to a study titled “Future Ready Skills: Assessing APAC Education Sector’s Use of AI” by Microsoft Asia and IDC Asia/Pacific.

With student outcomes being a key performance metric for higher education institutes, many are turning to leverage data to glean insights and drive improved outcomes.

“For many institutions, student performance has a direct impact on rankings,” said Larry Nelson, regional general manager of Education at Microsoft Asia. “AI can be a tool to help better manage outcomes and ensure continued innovation to optimise operations and enhance student engagements, as it reduces resource-intensive work among faculty and administrative staff.

“In fact, we found that three out of four education leaders agree that AI will be able to drive competitiveness in the next three years. However, only 32 per cent of education institutions in the Asia Pacific have embarked on their AI journey,” added Nelson.

Based on the study, the top business drivers for education leaders to adopt AI include better student engagement, higher funding, and accelerated innovation. For institutions that have adopted AI, they are seeing improvements in the range of 11 per cent to 28 per cent today in areas such as higher funding, accelerated innovation, higher competitiveness, improved efficiency and better student engagement. By 2021, educational institutions with AI stand to experience the biggest jump in higher funding, which is expected to increase by 3.7 times, higher than most industry sectors in the Asia- Pacific region, the study said.

Developing globally engaged citizenry is of utmost importance for all countries and is one of Japan’s key priorities. However, many students ignore the opportunity, delaying them from taking the classes they need for graduation. As one of the top universities in Japan serving more than 17,000 students, Hokkaido University’s Faculty of Engineering has embarked on its AI journey as part of its mission to encourage students to study abroad.

In a bid to remove this obstacle and contribute to a better abroad experience, the university developed a Microsoft Azure-based e-learning system that enables students to keep up with coursework back home. Leveraging AI and automation capabilities, the system helps the university broaden student access, expand capacity, streamline course preparations from days to hours, and enhance security.

“Our Azure-based e-learning system far better meets the needs of our students, who can access courses on their PCs, Android, iOS or other devices,” said Professor Yukinori Kobayashi, doctor of engineering and director of the Graduate School of Engineering, Hokkaido University. “This gives them a more enjoyable and convenient educational experience.”

The study evaluated six areas contributing to the sector’s AI readiness. The educational sector is currently lagging in data, strategy and investment, as well as culture when compared to the Asia Pacific’s overall AI readiness. This signifies that more work needs to be done for these specific areas for educational institutions to remain competitive.

Data: Education institutions need to work on availability, quality and governance of existing data

Data readiness is a key issue for education institutions. Today, data within higher education institutes is “siloed”, with limited usage of a cloud platform for scalability. Institutes also face issues with data timeliness and quality from sources, and a lack of governance practices to ensure trust in data usage.

Strategy and investment: Education institutions need to evaluate investments to support their AI strategy

For education institutions to reap the benefits of AI, they must have a sound AI strategy in place to improve their AI readiness. With this, they need to also look at investment strategies that can be allocated to support organisation-wide AI efforts.

Culture: Traits required for AI adoption lacking in education institutions

More than half of the education staff, and nearly half of the education leaders polled believe that cultural traits and behaviours are not pervasive in their organisation today. For example, 67 per cent of staff and 46 per cent of education leaders do not agree that staff are empowered to take risks and act with speed and agility within the institution.

“For education institutions to fully harness the power of AI, they will need to work on developing an AI strategy which can help better integrate AI elements in various areas of the institution,” said Victor Lim, vice president, Consulting Operations, IDC Asia/Pacific. “To do so, they will first need to have better data ‘hygiene’ and work on improving data readiness. Culture is an important key to help nurture the AI mindset. Education leaders will need to develop an innovative culture and empower their staff to work in an agile manner.”

AI skills required for future of educational sector

Both education leaders and staff in the sector are equally positive about the impact of AI on jobs. A majority of education leaders (61 per cent) and staff (61 per cent) believe AI will either help to do their existing jobs better or reduce repetitive tasks. In addition, both are optimistic of the impact AI will bring to their jobs, with 21 per cent of education leaders believing that AI will create new jobs while 13 per cent of staff agree.

However, according to education leaders, the skills required for an AI future are in short supply.

The study also noted that there is a disconnect with education leaders’ perception of their staff’s willingness to reskill. Although these leaders realise there is an urgent need for reskilling in order to cultivate an AI-ready workforce, they are not fully convinced that their staff are committed to being reskilled. Based on the study, 26 per cent of education leaders felt that workers have no interest to reskill, but only 11 per cent of staff had no interest.

“Education managements need to better understand their staff and prioritise reskilling efforts to address a shortage of skills. Only then are they able to take their respective institutions forward into an AI future and achieve better student outcomes,” Microsoft’s Nelson said.

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