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Texas Higher Ed Commissioner Foresees AI Virtual Assistants

Teasing an ed-tech conference in Austin later this month, Texas' Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller said students are already using AI, and more tutors and assistants are coming.

A person holding out their palm with the words "Ai" and "ChatGPT" hovering above it, as well as symbols like a computer chip and graphs.
(TNS) — The advent of artificial intelligence has come on faster than anyone anticipated forcing higher education, employers and industry to adjust.

"There is a lot of concern about artificial intelligence and we are just on the front edge of this. ... It's accelerated much faster than anyone anticipated, so across different industries that means that employers are thinking differently about what might be possible to automate. Things that seemed like they would be years out might only be a few months out," Texas' Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller said.

In higher education, there is a lot of debate and discussion about artificial intelligence and a lot of different opinions.

Leaders in education, government, and industry will convene Dec. 12-13 in Austin to discuss the road ahead for higher education at the Higher EDge 2023: Leading Texas' Future conference.

"We'll have a great panel discussion on this. Some faculty are trying to figure out if they might be able to ban the use of artificial intelligence chatbots in their course. Other faculty are requiring the students to use artificial intelligence chatbots in their course. There are a lot of folks in between, so this is a hot topic of discussion on the campuses right now," Keller said in a phone interview.

While AI was already out there, he said it has become more widespread and more powerful more quickly than anyone anticipated.

"We have students that are using ChatGPT to write their admissions essays, or to write papers for classes, or to help write programs or to help them edit their papers, so we in higher education are trying to figure out what the appropriate policies are. Of course, there have been other technologies that have been fundamentally disruptive to higher education that higher education has figured out how to adjust to, how to adapt and how to incorporate into teaching and learning research. I think this will happen with artificial intelligence also," Keller said.

"Again, we're just at the front edge. I think it won't be long before all of us have much more powerful virtual assistants that will be important parts of our lives. We have that a little bit now where you can ask Siri or Google to help with information, or to read an email or text to you, or to give you directions. But the artificial assistants are becoming more and more powerful more quickly so that will be disruptive for the way a lot of teaching and learning happens in colleges, but it can also be disruptive in positive ways," he added.

One of the more immediate benefits is that routine tasks can be automated by AI.

"The other thing that I'm particularly excited about is the AI tutor ... AI tutors can coach you along the way, help identify where you're making mistakes and where there are misconceptions and help students correct their errors much faster. It's like having an on-demand math tutor that can help you correct your errors and better understand what you're learning," Keller said.

On the new community college finance system, Keller said, it is quite a change from the previous model.

Recently, there was a roundtable discussion at Midland College focused on how the new system supports Odessa and Midland colleges in workforce education.

Attending were some community leaders involved in different aspects of workforce education who had questions about how the system is structured and wanted to talk about some of the unique regional workforce needs and how the new system, as it rolls out, might help the region address those workforce needs to help support OC, MC and other community colleges statewide.

Keller said the discussion was very good and more technical than he has been involved in in most regions across the state.

"I have to say it was one of my favorite events on House Bill 8 that I've been able to participate in the last several months," he added.

He noted that there are some important changes coming for this next fiscal year that will help more fully realize the intent of House Bill 8.

There will be a shift from using more historical data about the outcomes the colleges have produced to using much more timely data.

"So the colleges will be funded on the better of their outcomes for fiscal year 2025, or the average of 2025, 24 and 23 which(ever) of those two is greater. That means that starting next year we'll be funding the colleges based on projections of what kinds of outcomes they might achieve with a settle up process at the end of the year. If the colleges outperform what's projected, then they could receive additional dollars; if the colleges don't hit the projections in terms of the outcomes, then they could actually owe some money back to the state," Keller said.

"That will be a pretty important change, but what that means is for the colleges they'll be able to see a much more immediate impact as they grow new programs (and) as they improve their outcomes, so instead of having two or three year lag before better performance translates into funding they'll be able to see that happen for the current year. That's a dramatic change for the colleges and one of the most important parts of the new funding system," he added.

There are three different payments made to the colleges and a settle up process at the end of the year.

"Starting next year, we'll look into the data about the kinds of outcomes that Midland College and all the other colleges have been achieving and we will project, given what the trends are, what would we expect the college to be able to receive for outcomes-based funding for this year. That will help drive what those payments are during the year," Keller said.

"Let's say as a college during the year starts a new program with additional credentials they're awarding for that new program, or they are able to improve their graduation rates, or their transfer rates, or enroll more students in dual credit courses than we would have anticipated then what would happen is that the college would be able to receive additional money in the next fiscal year to settle up ... There would be additional money that the college would be owed for better-than-expected performance," Keller added.

The flip side is if the college doesn't perform as well as expected on those outcomes indicators, it could potentially owe money back to the state.

"That's a huge change, but that's a little more like we fund public schools. Public schools are actually funded based on projections of enrollment. Then there's a settle-up process. What that does is it makes the public school funding more directly connected to the students that they're enrolling for the current year. Similarly, we'll have the community college funding much more directly connected to the outcomes that the colleges are achieving in the current year," Keller said.

Asked if this puts more pressure on community colleges to have good student outcomes, Keller said that's the intent.

"That's the design, so that the president of the community college can say to the faculty, the deans, the provost we need to improve our outcomes. If we can improve our outcomes from x to y, here's how much additional funding that would mean for the college. Then they'd be able to see that much more direct connection between the outcomes they're achieving and the funds they're receiving from the state. That's the intent is to align those incentives for the colleges," he added.

If you have a student who is not college ready, a student from a low-income background, or an adult learner who has been out of college several years and needs additional support, in all those cases the colleges receive additional funding to help offset those costs.

"Your funding is actually adjusted based on those needs of your student population," Keller said.

"This is a major change. The state hasn't really recognized the kinds of investments that are required to educate adult learners (and) students who aren't college ready. There's been only a very limited part of the system that included any kind of adjustment for student need, so this is a historic change to more fully recognize those costs and support colleges,. It levels the playing field a little bit across the colleges to make sure that those additional resources will be there to support students in earning that credential of value," Keller said.

©2023 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.