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The Connected Enterprise

PODCAST

Teaching Future Leaders: How Higher Education Is Using Technology to Help Students Succeed

Posted by Vision33 on Apr 29, 2020 12:00:00 PM

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Full Transcript

Carl Lewis:

Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast. I'm Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Mr. J Scott Christianson. Scott is a teacher and entrepreneur working at the Trulaske College of Business, which is part of the University of Missouri. Is that right, Scott?

J. Scott Christianson:

Yes. I'm a teaching faculty there, so I’m in the management department with numerous other teaching faculty and a researcher tenure track faculty.

Carl Lewis:

Scott, tell us about your background and the work you do at the university.

J. Scott Christianson:

My background is different from some of my academic colleagues. I ran my own business for many years, starting in the late ‘90s. I started at the University of Missouri part time, teaching project management and information systems. I didn’t take a full-time role until 2014. And I still do consulting on the side for some of my longtime clients.

J. Scott Christianson:

I don't have a PhD; I have a master’s degree, which is also different. My interest is teaching students about technology, how to think about emerging technologies, and preparing them for the technology they'll encounter in the workforce.

Carl Lewis:

I’m interested in talking to people from different places in society where technology is important and being sought and experimented with. Higher education stays as up to date as possible with technology because you're teaching the leaders of tomorrow. What are trends in higher education regarding automation, artificial intelligence, internet of things, and similar things? I know I said AI, but we're talking about machine learning when we get there. What's the big thing today in the educational side of life?

J. Scott Christianson:

There are two aspects. One is what we're teaching the students; the other is the technology we use. A big enterprise like the University of Missouri uses an ERP system to track the aspects of having 8,000+ employees and 30,000+ students.

J. Scott Christianson:

We’re also trying to deploy new technologies to help in the classroom. Before everything went remote, we were trying to help students track their attendance and success – we wanted systems that could identify when a student is at risk of failing. An early alert system. There's a lot of overseeing, which takes some of those patterns into account.

J. Scott Christianson:

Not all those systems use machine learning or AI, but a lot look for patterns in behavior where we can recognize, "Carl always attends classes and sits in the front row. Now he’s not there for multiple classes. That’s unusual. What’s happening?” Whereas, "Scott has always been a slacker and only comes to class 50% of the time. Therefore, that pattern is normal this week."

J. Scott Christianson:

A lot of the efforts are aimed toward students' success. Higher education has become more competitive, especially as state support has dropped off, so we're competing more for students and tuition dollars. We can argue whether that's good or bad, but it’s the reality right now.

J. Scott Christianson:

We’ve deployed a lot of enterprise-wide information systems to recruit students and help them navigate how to get into school and get help with advising, writing, mental health issues, etc. Whatever it is, we want to help them succeed.

J. Scott Christianson:

We’ve also deployed things on the teachers' side to engage with the students better and process information more quickly. There are great tools for grading that aren’t automated by any means. We can talk about whether automating would be a good idea or not, but I can easily mark up and provide feedback – even on videos – submitted by the students.

J. Scott Christianson:

I like that type of turnaround. Students don’t submit papers and wait three weeks for grades. I don't know what it was like when you went to school, but I had to go to the instructor's office and read a big printed spreadsheet to see my grades. Now, we're trying to give feedback more immediately, when students can use it better.

Carl Lewis:

That's exactly what I had to do, although at one point, I went to a very small college where they passed the test back in the next class because they didn't have as heavy a burden as university professors. You mentioned we can discuss the pros and cons of that. What are the biggest challenges of using these technologies?

J. Scott Christianson:

One problem is that when we get into machine learning or AI, some systems have what we call ‘black boxes.’ This is especially true with deep learning systems for machine learning, where different hidden layers on the neural network are weighting different aspects of its decision-making. Some colleges have tried to apply that to admissions or financial aid decisions, which they were trying for good reasons – to avoid bias in human selection.

J. Scott Christianson:

Our own biases come into play, but when something’s making a decision about you, you want to know why that decision was made. It's hard to see into those systems to see what data is being used to train them. If we look at the previous success of students and whether they’ll meet – or have met – our definitions of success and then use that to train a new algorithm, we could get into a danger zone of not allowing for exceptions. It may even build bias into those systems.

J. Scott Christianson:

I love playing with technology. I have a little NVIDIA computer board that does machine learning on the board itself. I'm excited to play with that in my spare time. I'm also cautious of how machine learning gets deployed, especially in areas where it's replacing human decision-making. I don't see problems when we replace humdrum, mundane tasks and pattern recognition. For example, we have a program that looks at student writing and tells you if a paper is 99% the same as another student’s paper. That's an automation that gives instructors something where they can make the decision. I get worried when we turn more decisions over to these systems.

Carl Lewis:

I hear that. I call it the conflict between data and morality. It's still a machine. It doesn't have that characteristic. It's programmed by humans, and we make mistakes no matter what we're doing. You’re right; we must be smart about the recommendations our computers make in this age. What do you think is the next big thing higher education will look at from a technology perspective?

J. Scott Christianson:

We’re right in the middle of the COVID-19 global pandemic. There may have been something similar in 1969, but I was a baby and don't remember it and my mom doesn't remember it. So, it's been a long time since we've had anything like this, and we certainly never experienced anything like this in the technology age.

J. Scott Christianson:

There's a lot of discussion. Our faculty had a meeting, and we know education won’t be the same when we come out of this. And not just because everyone's going to go online and think it's wonderful. I cringe when people say, "Oh, we're doing a massive global experiment in e-learning." I cringe because my courses weren’t designed to be online. This is a Hail Mary attempt to get us through the semester, graduate some folks, and finish up the course. This course wasn’t thoughtfully designed to be online. We would do a lot of things differently.

J. Scott Christianson:

However, we're finding we can recognize a broader experience with online tools. In my classes, we use two-way video conferencing technology, which works well with discussions. I’m also incorporating things like Slack. Other people use Microsoft Teams or similar programs to stay in touch with their classes. Some recognize there are some changes that could happen here. Doing things via technology is not for everyone. I had one student tell me, "I’ve never wanted to go to class as badly as I do now." They don’t like being at home and having to see me on the computer and interact with me and their colleagues that way.

Carl Lewis:

I haven't heard anybody say that in the last few weeks, but if I had an option of doing an online class and doing a class in person, I would much rather do it in person even if I didn't make any money. There's something lost online. I don't know if it's that human quality or what, but it’s very difficult for me to feel as effective in a remote environment.

Carl Lewis:

We've talked about communication, Scott. Today, as an instructor working with students, tell us about the communications you're using. What works and what doesn't work? Do you see change happening?

J. Scott Christianson:

I'm from the email generation. We didn’t have it when I was in college, but as I entered my professional career, we had email. I orient toward email, and not in short messages but as a replacement for actual letters. So, I'm part of that slacker generation that interacts that way.

J. Scott Christianson:

However, my students – my customers – aren’t there. They’re text messaging. I give out my cell phone number to all 800+ students, and I tell them that if they ask me something that’s been answered elsewhere, especially at the end of the semester, they may not get a response because I’ll be overwhelmed. I don't like text messaging except for short messages. However, that’s where my students are, and I believe you must go where your customers are.

J. Scott Christianson:

I like Slack in Microsoft Teams because it has that aspect of email, and if you’re online, it becomes an instant message. I like some of those platforms. I’d like to see them become more common.

J. Scott Christianson:

There's another one I think is popular with gamers, and I’ll get the name wrong. I think it's called Discuss, or Diskus, or something like that. Starts with a D. I'm sure your listeners are laughing and know what I'm trying to say. It's similar.

J. Scott Christianson:

I think we’ll see more of those types of applications. Maybe they’ll incorporate streaming so when I get a text from a student about how to do something, I can stream them something that shows how to do it, rather than trying to text it. Even now, I sometimes text a short video. There are many opportunities for new communication tools. And maybe having courses that aren’t just online – some type of hybrid.

J. Scott Christianson:

I'm considering that for my fall classes. Well, are we going back to class in the fall? I don't know. I hope so, but it doesn't look like things will be resolved as fast as we want, so could I have this hybrid where we meet sometimes, and sometimes we don’t? Can we bring social aspects into the classroom? Because you're right; there have been waves of technology in education, and we thought we'd just plunk some technology down and education would be cheap and available to everybody. But it turns out education is a social enterprise. Interacting with each other is where we get a lot of the value.

Carl Lewis:

That's part of the formula you can't just take out. Video meetings allow us to see each other, which helps with the problem of missing nonverbal cues, but there's still the dynamic of having a group of people together in a room, sharing the same experience.

Carl Lewis:

You've had your own consulting business and probably seen many companies deploy technology. You were the third party of helping them. What are the biggest challenges companies face when working with a third party to implement new technology?

J. Scott Christianson:

People who want to compete or select a vendor on price rather than the value they’ll provide or cultural fit. Does that vendor understand your culture? That's a big thing.

J. Scott Christianson:

When I look at the clients I've kept for many years, I think we've had a cultural fit. I finally got good, toward the end, about firing clients and potential clients because I realized they weren’t a good fit.

J. Scott Christianson:

The other thing is people going too fast in implementations. I worked with video conferencing, and there was a tendency to say, "We're going to replace all our trips starting next week with video conferencing," instead of deciding how to start small, drive adoption, and have one or two successes before proceeding. You have to look for wins because if you have failures off the bat, people will talk.

J. Scott Christianson:

Find early adopters willing to take risks. In video conferencing, for example, maybe taking a risk of being in front of a camera. That was a big deal in the '90s. If they succeed, they’ll tell other people about their wins and success with your technology. Maybe they've made more sales this month because of your technology. Whatever it is, they'll talk to other people and get the next group of adopters to come on board.

J. Scott Christianson:

If there are problems but successes came first, people tend to discount the problems. If the problems came first, they tend to overemphasize them. So, start slow and take baby steps. It will move your adoption faster in the long run. That was my experience, anyway, and it’s a habit we've tried to get into with our customers.

Carl Lewis:

That's good advice. A lot of implementation projects I've seen have this fictionalized go-live date. It's a big bang. "This weekend, we'll do all the things, and on Monday, everyone's going to use the new system." That’s fraught with a week or two weeks’ worth of work to fill the holes we didn't know would be there because we didn't roll it out slowly.

J. Scott Christianson:

You can't always do a phased rollout, but you can take one aspect of an ERP system and phase that rollout or the first part you think will provide some successes. Then you can bring the other parts. The big bang strategy makes sense on paper, but if you consider the social aspects and stress it puts on your employees, you might consider a hybrid process instead.

Carl Lewis:

Absolutely. Are there parts of your daily transactions and interactions with students that have been automated and are a big plus for you as an instructor?

J. Scott Christianson:

Scheduling meetings. Office hours, for me, never worked out. There are several scheduling apps that work well. The university has one, but I've been paying for my own for many years. I give students access to the URL, and they can schedule a meeting with me. It syncs with my calendar. If they schedule for the evenings or weekends, we can use Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc.

J. Scott Christianson:

Now, I don't have emails back and forth about, "When can you meet? No, not then." It’s a boon to me, and probably your listeners, too. Other things have to do with our learning management system, like being able to distribute communications to all students, put grades in a central location, offer videos, PowerPoints, Word docs, and being able to review things and provide feedback. All that has gotten so much better in the last five years. It's incredible.

Carl Lewis:

I can't imagine what that would be like as student or a graduate assistant. Uploading papers into a repository or emailing them instead of handing printed papers in in a notebook or whatever the instructor required. And I taught as a graduate assistant during my master's work; I can only imagine the ease those tools would have offered.

J. Scott Christianson:

There are tools like Grammarly, too, which students use to check their grammar. That's good because you learn from seeing the corrections. I tell my students they can't be great at everything, so they need to find a crutch to help them along. I encourage them to get feedback from their family, girlfriend, whomever about a paper if they can. Find mechanisms so they can get better. I think Grammarly is an interesting one.

J. Scott Christianson:

A student told me about a readability tool. It doesn't just look at the grammar – it explains how readable a paper is. These are good tools to help them learn on their own, because with 800 students, I don't have time to diagram sentences and explain how to make them better. Automated tools are going to be key.

Carl Lewis:

I’ve needed those tools my whole life. I wouldn’t have made it through college without my wife. She still edits important things I'm going to publish. I've always been a public speaker, so I write like I speak, which doesn't always translate well to the page. Those are good suggestions.

Carl Lewis:

Scott, we appreciate you telling us about the technology happenings in the educational side of life. Keep in touch if something new comes up; I’d love to hear about it.

J. Scott Christianson:

That sounds great, Carl. I really appreciate you having me on.

Carl Lewis:

As I always try to get these done in 20 or 30 minutes, we're right on time. Everyone, take care of yourselves. Be safe. Stay connected.

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