Strategic Education – can AI educate?
Strategic Education is at the forefront of introducing AI to the education needs. The company is well positioned as a post-secondary education provider with scale to deliver tailored solutions to its customers and AI seems to be an enabler of value.
Strategic Education (owns Strayer and Capella Universities) is the US-based corporation focused on enabling economic mobility and seamless workforce adaptation to ever-changing skills in demand through affordable and tailored education.
The company targets mostly adult students that require special accommodation – e.g. they can take courses only in non-working hours – and often pursue customized degrees. These requirements coupled with the company’s mission to bring down the costs of education and provide the maximum ROI (both on time and money) for its students could only be met with a creative approach to the education model and Strategic Education has opted in for intensive use of AI.
First of all, Strategic Education has a vast set of complex but standardized data ranging from student admission files/polls to current academic performance and preferences. Having this resource obtained through the scale – almost 100,000 students enrolled, over 40 educational programs, and over 600 corporate employer partners – the company strives to employ predictive analytics for student behaviors to provide responsive learning and the most efficient and streamlined path to graduation. As an example, the company’s VP of AI cites the ability to “track missing assignments and use text interaction data to gauge behaviors, satisfaction, and learning style, crunching all of this information swiftly and effectively”. Currently this data is used only in automated interactions with the students, but Strategic Education plans to roll-out ML patterns recognition to adjust a student’s course schedule on the fly, gamify the experience, and provide instant feedback for professors – all aimed to facilitate the most effective learning experience.
Second, through the use of AI the company has significantly brought down the costs by eliminating unnecessary labor costs for academic advisors and IT helpdesk from its operating model. Strategic Education has already introduced Irving – virtual assistant – who is already addressing most of student questions ranging from financial aid to APA writing style, providing course recommendations and does that much more efficiently than human operator (e.g. average help session time was reduced by 3x). While almost 60,000 students have already interacted more than 350,000 times with Irving, there is ample room for further improvements. The current success rate (i.e. delivering the response expected by customer) is around 85% meaning that the rest 15% are redirected to human agents. By constantly training Irving on new sets of questions and extending its library of trained topics (currently 1,025) Strategic Education aims to do away with most of routine type of administrative tasks and/or often repeated questions being handled by humans. Further increasing Irving’s scope the company plans to move from reactive interactions with students to proactive advise like recommendations on joining a student group with aligned interests, reminding of the deadlines, and soliciting peer tutoring.
Finally, by recognizing the importance of tight AI integration in education process, Strategic Education should be well positioned to quickly grow its scale by both outcompeting other less flexible universities and creating a new market by providing good-enough education for obtaining new skills at a very low cost on the corporate tab. Given how quickly market needs for education are going to change in the future (what code syntax to learn? what marketing methods are going to be in demand?, etc.) an importance of keeping educational program up-to-date is only going to rise. Unlike traditional fundamental educational model employing courses tracing back to 1950s that change very slow, AI algorithms have the advantage of increasing speed-to-market of new solutions/courses and are much more easily scalable. Moreover, while traditional models use one-to-many format (i.e. all students listen to the same course) that works well for basic courses due to uniform demand for the knowledge the post-secondary education is focused much more on filing the knowledge/skills gap that are different for every individual. Therefore, AI-empowered way of matching unique student needs to the tailored curriculum (chosen from huge database curated by professors) is much more suitable for this many-to-one paradigm.
Strategic Education has an ambitious mission and has been so far only scratching the surface of AI capabilities in education. However, the company should move quickly by leveraging its scale and continue its fruitful partnerships with AI-enabling platforms (e.g. DialogFlow for Irving) to solidify its market leading positions. The costs of new tech-investments might be heavy, and the outcomes are risky, but I believe Strategic Education should make those bets by carefully experimenting in controlled environments (potentially involving volunteers or doing promotional test curriculums at zero cost). The potential first-order returns are quick growth and reduced costs while second-order benefits might include increasing caliber of alumni and professors choosing Strategic Education as a mean for knowledge transfer.
Student comments on Strategic Education – can AI educate?
While I see the opportunity to scale, I’m curious whether by engaging AI in education, we move to a place where learning is commodity that is devoid of human interaction. Part of the value proposition of learning is contacts with new networks- not just the material you absorb. How might online learning make up for this “automatic” benefit that comes with in-person schooling? Might an education AI like this link to a connection AI like the ones on LinkedIn to allow a progress that is similar to the in-person context?
I’m curious as to how private this data is and whether students know that they’re storing all of their interactions on this device. It seems like Irving is being helpful but I don’t think they’re very clear about the difference between helpful and creepy. If I ask when school starts and you give me a link to buy books, that’s great. If I ask what financial aid is available, and you use the fact that I asked for financial aid information earlier to give me a link to buy used books rather than new books, I’d feel a bit differently.
I’m also worried that they’re going to be taken out by any business question and answering bot. Even Harvard College’s Office of Career Services has employed a bot like this for years, and I’m not sure if there’s much different in the process between education and other fields.
Thanks for an interesting post, Alexander! I’ve heard about AI education a bit but never heard about Strategic Education, so I’m happy I read this. I am curious to know the competitive landscape and other AI education platforms – is the tailored curriculum the most distinctive feature of SE? I know AI-powered personalized learning is getting more common (although I’m not sure exactly to what extent), but perhaps SE is one step ahead?
Also one thing I’ve thought about is how much of SE’s features can be applied to middle and especially high school. The human element obviously has to play a large role, especially for social skills, but it seems much of the admin can be removed, personalized learning be much more broadly implemented, and even tailored curriculums be used to some extent – so why don’t we? What are the major obstacles to changing the only (and very key) sector in our modern world that basically hasn’t evolved over the past century (or -ies), when we have the technology to improve it? Would be interesting to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for a great article! I was impressed that the company already has almost 100,000 students enrolled. I understand that the online education market is getting competitive since famous universities entered online education from the top end and the freemium websites such as Codeacademy are increasing a pressure from the low end. I’m curious to see how SE with its AI capability will differentiate from competitors and how the online education market will evolve going forward.