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Innovation, Imagination, Impact: UMGC Embraces AI

UMGC Staff
By UMGC Staff

By Martina Hansen, Kristophyre McCall and Dr. Michael Proksch

University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) has long been an educational innovator. Now, by approaching artificial intelligence (AI) as a partner, the university is at the forefront of an educational renaissance, poised to change the way students interact with the institution, acquire knowledge and skills, and navigate their careers.

In other industries, AI has already reshaped operations. In healthcare, it is used to predict patient outcomes, personalize treatment plans, and accelerate drug discovery. In finance, it is revolutionizing how clients manage and invest money, with algorithms that predict market trends and automate trading, offering insights that were previously inaccessible to human analysts. In the automotive industry, AI is the driving force behind autonomous vehicles.

While its potential is exciting, AI’s role in higher education has yet to be clearly defined. However, this much is clear: We will squander AI’s true potential if we treat it as a general-purpose technology or only apply it in isolated situations. Therefore, UMGC is looking beyond short-term implementation, with the goal of defining and applying AI as a collaborative partner in its university community. 

From left: Kristophyre McCall, chief transformation officer; Martina Hansen, senior vice president and chief student affairs officer; and Dr. Michael Proksch, chief scientist at AccelerEd.

A Vision for Higher Education

At UMGC, institutional leaders are shaping a future where AI supports and also significantly improves the personal and professional lives of students, faculty, and staff.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Currently, the university leverages AI to enhance the services it offers. As a global institution focused on adult and military learners, it is crucial that UMGC provide around-the-clock support that is conveniently accessible. This requires flexibility and a variety of communication channels, and AI currently powers a chatbot that can offer learners personalized information and answers to questions, saving them a call to support. It can also deliver e-mail at the time the learner is most like to see and open it.

Now the institution is focused on expanding those capabilities, from sending timely reminders about things like project deadlines or FAFSA application dates, to helping navigate the online classroom or find federal resources. This represents more than logistical support; some learners may be apprehensive about asking for help from support personnel out of fear that they will be judged or misunderstood. AI can offer a nonjudgmental platform.

Most UMGC students come to the university with specific goals—perhaps career advancement, launching a new career, achieving a personal milestone, or something else altogether. Faced with an array of options, including credit or noncredit learning experiences, multiple start dates, different learning modalities, and different locations, it can be daunting for them to map out a pathway that promises to lead them to the desired outcome. UMGC’s objective is to help those learners reach their goal in a timeframe that works for them while incurring the least amount of debt.

How AI Will Help Stephen

Let us consider the case of Stephen, a potential student. In the near future, AI will help UMGC team members provide him with personalized guidance as he continues his learning journey. AI—tailored to both understand and accommodate his learning preferences, career goals, and personal interests—will enhance the work of the university’s success coaches, military education coordinators, and other advising staff. It will help recommend courses, sequences, and learning experiences, working alongside faculty to aid Stephen in acquiring knowledge more quickly and effectively by aligning with his specific style of learning.

AI might also identify a more focused and effective educational journey, offering support when a student prefers to self-service or late at night, when support staff aren‘t readily available. Looking farther down the road, AI that has been integrated with augmented or virtual reality could offer Stephen immersive learning experiences that are especially effective in fields like science, history, or language studies.  

In short, for UMGC, AI is evolving beyond a simple technological tool; it is becoming an integral partner in the university’s decision-making processes, expanding the institution's capacity to serve students better.

UMGC is no stranger to innovation, having helped pioneer online education globally, and its public mission underscores a commitment to adult learners. Thus, institutional leaders support expanding the horizons of AI innovation, ensuring that AI helps build stronger connections between students, team members, and AI itself.

At the same time, university stakeholders are extending the application of AI into administrative and operational realms, streamlining processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness. By incorporating AI into these areas, the objective is to optimize resource allocation, enhance decision-making, and look for ways to automate routine tasks, which in turn allows the organization to focus on more strategic initiatives and team members to focus on students or their own professional development. This holistic approach underscores UMGC’s dedication to excellence in education, operational agility, and the overall enhancement of the institutional ecosystem. 

Understanding AI and Its Potential

Discussions about AI often refer to its foundation in machine learning, which uses extensive historical data and computational power to assist or sometimes even automate human decision-making. But what are the broader implications of this technology?

The work of Russell L. Ackoff, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, is helpful in better understanding AI's full impact, drawing on his concepts about systems thinking. Although his observations are decades old, they remain relevant today.

While AI shines in its ability to combine historical data and information to accumulate knowledge in a way that drastically outperforms most human capabilities, Ackoff identified a gap: Machines lack the capacity to understand the value of knowledge, as well as the ability to generate wisdom. Wisdom, according to Ackoff, involves a deep understanding of the long-term outcomes of our choices while maintaining a focus on the bigger picture, thus contributing to development and an increase in potential and value. It involves strategic foresight, an orientation towards the implications that current actions may have for the future. In contrast, knowledge that is accumulated by machines is a record of what has already occurred, a database of historical information with the ability to improve efficiency, but not effectiveness.

The current challenge, then, is to reimagine the role of AI, applying wisdom and envisioning the future of education, and within that framework, defining how to implement AI as a provider of knowledge and collaborator in shaping a comprehensive vision. It is the human capacity for wisdom that must guide the utilization of AI to achieve significant and purposeful results.

It is reasonable and necessary to take a cautious approach. AI systems are only as unbiased as the data on which they are trained, and if the training data contains biases, AI can perpetuate or even amplify them. This is a significant concern in areas like hiring, law enforcement, loan approvals, and education, where biased AI could lead to unfair or discriminatory outcomes. 

One of the most discussed risks is the potential for AI to automate jobs, particularly those involving routine, repetitive tasks. While AI can create new job opportunities, the transition could be challenging for those whose skills are made redundant by AI.

Seeking Analogies

As we seek to understand AI’s potential and value, there are recent advances that offer useful context and can help guide an intentional approach to understanding and applying emerging technologies.  

1 The Personal Computer (PC): Before PCs democratized access to computing, computers were large, expensive, and accessible only to businesses and universities. Similarly, AI is transitioning from an exclusive, high-end technology to something more accessible. Just like PCs, AI is becoming an integral part of everyday life.

2 The Internet: The internet connected our world in ways we had never seen before, transforming access to information and global communication. AI can be seen as the next step in that evolution—not only connecting information but also understanding, processing, and generating it. It is like going from a vast library where you had to search for information manually to one where a smart assistant instantly brings you exactly what you need.

3   The Smartphone: Smartphones made computing power pocket-sized, changing the way we communicate, access information, and interact with the world. AI is becoming similarly pervasive and personal. It is already in our phones, homes, cars, and workplaces, and it is reshaping how we live, work, and interact with our environment. There is no longer any need to carry individual calculators, cameras, video recorders, or audio devices; all of those are now a single device in our pocket. In the process, whole industries have been restructured. Now, for example, we no longer need to purchase a full album when we only want to hear one song, and this has forever changed the musical ecosystem.  

AI is poised to bring similarly profound changes, driving a fundamental shift in how we handle information, make decisions, and interact with technology. In summary, AI is not just a new tool; it is a new way of thinking about problems and solutions.

Lessons from AI Pioneers

Already, AI is being used in innovative ways and making an impact across industries. In healthcare, its capacity to tailor treatments for individuals based on their genetics, lifestyle, and health history is driven by the technology’s ability to sift through and analyze complex datasets. This is applicable across any sector that stands to gain from customized solutions. 

In retail, for instance, personalized shopping experiences have improved customer satisfaction while also reshaping consumer expectations. The model pioneered by e-commerce giants like Amazon—with features like aggregated reviews and product comparisons—has set a new standard for consumer choice and informed purchasing decisions. Similarly, the application of AI in predictive inventory management and supply chain optimization allows businesses to better anticipate and fulfill customer demands, thereby enhancing efficiency and responsiveness. 

UMGC is adopting these foundational concepts and innovative practices as we formulate strategies for the future. At the heart of this approach is the university’s commitment to creating personalized learning experiences that resonate with students, as well as improving the employee experience. By harnessing data in novel and insightful ways, the university can gain a deeper understanding of its students, what they bring to the classroom, and their aspirations, and equip teams to support them. This understanding will allow the institution to develop more effective coursework and learning experiences. In addition, by providing students with clearer insights into their educational pathways and tailoring outcomes to meet their needs and those of employers, UMGC can leverage AI to open new avenues for exploration and improvement. 

The rapid technological advances happening across industries can both inspire and drive innovation, and UMGC is dedicated to implementing best practices from within higher education as well as from other sectors. By embracing AI, UMGC is preparing to meet the evolving needs of its learners and the business community while also positioning itself at the forefront of educational innovation. As the organization continues to explore AI’s potential, stakeholders are excited by the possibilities it holds for enhancing the educational experience, making learning more accessible, and contributing to the success of students in an increasingly digital world.

The Future Starts in Maryland

UMGC’s approach to AI is methodical and inclusive, evaluating its implications and impact on how team members think and operate across the institution. 

For instance, Dr. Michael Proksch, chief scientist at AccelerEd—part of UMGC Ventures and a key university innovation partner—is working with his team to develop AI capabilities that align with the university’s broader vision. Martina Hansen, UMGC’s senior vice president and chief student affairs officer, is working with her team of advisors to guide these efforts, ensuring that solutions create value for students and team members alike. And Kristophyre McCall, the university’s chief transformation officer, is working to foster an institutional culture that supports and embraces these advances across the organization.

Already, UMGC’s AI initiative is showing promising outcomes—in student support, resource allocation, training, and more—as always with the overarching goal of adding comprehensive value to the educational landscape.

Throughout the journey, university stakeholders are applying current knowledge and observing outcomes while aiming to broaden understanding alongside institutional partners. This is consistent with UMGC’s history of innovation, which rests on a foundation of exploration that embraces change, challenges the status quo, and adopts what works. As other organizations deliberate over AI and its impact, UMGC is moving forward, putting vision into action and preparing learners for the challenges of tomorrow, today.

This article appears in the 2024 issue of Achiever magazine.