New IDC report shows big opportunities to transform higher education through AI

In this blog, Microsoft talks about ways to address the top challenges to AI adoption through empowering inclusion, expanding access to accessible and affordable technology, supporting faculty and staff with skills, training, and resources, and partnering on long-terms AI strategies.

IDC chart
See the full report, including where institutions are today on the readiness scale.

Artificial intelligence is transforming higher education, according to a new study released today by IDC and commissioned by Microsoft. The report details the expected opportunity with AI in higher education and the challenges institutions must overcome to realize results. 

The study covered 509 higher education institutions in the US, and found that nearly all respondents—99.4 percent—say AI will be instrumental to their institution’s competitiveness in the next three years. Fifteen percent called AI a “game-changer,” and 54 percent of higher education institutions in the US have started to experiment with AI, while 38 percent have adopted AI as a core part of their business strategy.  

With the primary goals of improving student outcomes, enabling the workforce of the future, and accelerating innovation, higher education institutions are bullish on the role AI will play in realizing success. The report showed an expected twofold increase in competitiveness, funding, and innovation over the next three years. 

In the short term, AI-enabled solutions that don’t require a big data strategy will begin to transform learning. The IDC study found that modernized learning and classrooms top the list of use cases for AI-enabled solutions over the next 12 to 18 months. Modernized learning refers to personalized learning enabled at scale, accessibility, and inclusion features for learners of all abilities, as well as AR/VR for blended learning. Modernized classrooms, likewise, refer to virtual workspaces and labs, as well as smart classrooms.

The top hurdles standing in the way of higher education goals that leverage AI include solution cost and lack of skills: 57 percent of institutions listed cost as the top challenge they face in adopting AI-enabled solutions today. Lack of skills, resources, and continuous learning came in second for employees. And nearly half of organizations said they’re planning to invest equally in developing AI solutions and closing the employee skills gap. The study also revealed a widespread lack of data strategy as well as gaps in data governance policies, quality, and availability. This indicates that many institutions need to better understand and plan for what is needed to support AI-enabled solutions in the long term.

So, what does the research mean for students and educators, and how is Microsoft working to help? Let’s take a look.


Empowering inclusion of all learners

Inclusion is core to everything we do at Microsoft. We believe educators and technology leaders like Microsoft have a responsibility to help bridge the growing skills gap—not only to ensure a skilled workforce in the future, but also to support economic growth and innovation across the world and for future generations. To achieve these goals, strategies need to be inclusive of every individual, and in particular of people who face the challenges of living with physical or learning disabilities.

There are more than 1 billion people globally living with a disability, or around 15 per cent of the world’s population.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report, in the US alone, 19.3 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 64 with a disability were employed in 2019. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for persons without a disability was 66.3 percent. Persons with a disability are less likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher than those with no disability.

Children with disabilities are less likely to attend school, and education completion gaps are found across all age groups in all settings, with the pattern more pronounced in poorer countries. But people of differing abilities are just one example of learners with special needs. In 2017, 258 million people (or 1 out of every 30 people) were living outside their country of birth, with children making up over half of all refugees. The education and assessment needs of refugee and migrant children are complex and differ enormously.Today, 9.6 percent of US public school enrollees are non-native English learners. Overcoming the language barrier can be a major challenge for students, leaving them struggling to keep up.

For these reasons, inclusion is a critical component of both modernized learning and modernized classrooms, and a core part of Microsoft’s mission to empower every learner on the planet to achieve more.


Accessible, affordable technology

At Microsoft, we believe technology needs to be affordable and more accessible for everyone to use. Microsoft is prioritizing accessibility in our products and services, building diverse teams, and seeking input from the accessibility community in the development process. Products like Microsoft Teams help provide an inclusive classroom environment, while built-in accessibility tools—such as Microsoft Translator for Education— boost inclusivity for all language speakers, helping people of all abilities and backgrounds participate fully in their education. 

Educators and businesspeople alike need access to tools that help them be more effective in their jobs. Microsoft is enabling anyone to build AI-enabled solutions at a lower cost with off-the-shelf tools. In a recent LinkedIn post, Satya Nadella referred to this concept as building a new category of “citizen developers” with the goal of equipping domain experts in every sector with low-code or no-code tools to create solutions that solve their unique needs.

Some recent announcements illustrate how Microsoft is putting this into practice. At Ignite in November, Microsoft announced new capabilities in Microsoft’s Power Platform, including newly named Power Apps and the new Power Virtual Agents. Power Apps help drive innovation across an institution by enabling faculty or staff to quickly build low-code apps, such as those that deliver actionable insights in real time.  

The new Power Virtual Agents enable institutions to easily create and maintain intelligent chatbots without having to code, enabling conversational engagement with students and employees. For example, Professor David Kellermann of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, has built an intelligent Question Bot that gets smarter and is capable of supplying answers on its own to students, which allows for greater student independence and supports personalized learning. And, as evidenced in this example, these tools can all be incorporated into a single Teams environment for users to access everything in one place, enabling a collaborative, inclusive classroom.


Skills and continuous learning

According to Satya Nadella’s LinkedIn post, there are more than 800 million people today who need to learn new skills for their jobs. Further, two-thirds of students today will eventually apply for jobs that do not yet exist. In today’s world, it is critical that employees continuously update their skills to keep up with technology and its power to drive change, and institutions need to provide students with skills that prepare them to meet the opportunities of tomorrow’s careers. 

Last October, we announced the free online AI Business School for Education to enable education leaders to lead their organizations into the age of AI. In launching the school, Microsoft VP of Education Anthony Salcito talked about the opportunity for higher education institutions to provide truly personalized, accessible learning and experiences to all students around the world through technology and AI.

Leading institutions are doing this today. Case in point: Syracuse University’s I-School is partnering with businesses and government to drive experiential learning for its students while building AI solutions with Microsoft technology that help solve real-world problems, such as the solution from Our Ability that helps people with disabilities gain employment. Check out the video to see how Syracuse University is both skilling its students and helping build inclusive technology with AI. 


Partnering for a long-term AI strategy

Artificial intelligence runs on data. But 37 percent of respondents in the IDC study said that data strategy and data readiness—including a comprehensive governance plan—were not seen as strategic priorities for their institution, indicating a lack of clarity on what’s needed to execute against an AI strategy. 

When it comes to strategic initiatives across areas such as recruitment, retention, graduation, and fundraising in higher education, a more holistic data strategy is required to use AI to drive insight and improvement. Institutions seek agility and iteration, while integrating data from multiple sources and assuring that the data is managed securely and governed responsibly. This can be a long, arduous process.

Microsoft is working to help close this gap by providing a comprehensive data platform with Azure and Power Platform. We also provide guidance and help with execution of data strategy, governance, and readiness through Microsoft Consulting Services and Microsoft partners. Microsoft Consulting Services can help apply machine learning and AI to existing business processes, creating an intelligent model that allows institutions to be proactive in tackling top challenges like strategic planning, transformation initiatives, outcomes assessment, and student success. 


Start working with AI and accessibility tools today

The research shows not only the potential returns that institutions stand to gain from AI initiatives, but also that the technology needed to begin realizing that value already exists. The AI Business School is Microsoft’s starting point for guidance to understand AI and build workable short- and long-term strategies. Microsoft Consulting Services can help any organization put data and AI initiatives into practice.

Teachers, schools and education systems also can:

Microsoft’s Power Platform also has built-in accessibility to help anyone take advantage of the tools. Today, Microsoft provides a number of learning paths to develop skills on the Power Platform.  

For more information on how to get started with AI today, see the Include all learners with AI one-pager.  

 Again, make sure to check out the full IDC report here, including where institutions are today on the readiness scale. 

And remember that students and educators at eligible institutions can sign up for Office 365 Education for free, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and now Microsoft Teams, plus additional classroom tools. All you need is a valid school email address. 

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