Feng Hou – Maryville University
The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated industries across the country and the world. It has shut down professional and collegiate sports, movies and television productions. Unemployment is at a record high. If there’s one silver lining, says Feng Hou, it’s that the outbreak has accelerated the digital transformation in higher education.
“What’s happening now isn’t anything new. It’s just an acceleration of what higher education has been planning for a decade,” says Hou, the chief digital transformation evangelist at Maryville University in St. Louis.
At Maryville, that transformation includes several projects and initiatives to make student life easier using upgraded technology, different programming and changes to the way higher education content is delivered. As a result, Hou thinks Maryville is well-positioned—due to past and present creativity and technological ingenuity—to be a standard-bearer for education nationally.
“We accelerated something that was taking 10 years and got it done in 10 days,” he says. “I certainly think the digital transformation in higher education is here to stay.”
New project guiding school’s path
For centuries, lighthouses have served as navigational aids for maritime pilots at sea. Today, a new program at Maryville—the 3 Lighthouses Project—is helping guide the school’s “ship” toward its digital transformation. And Hou, at the urging of Maryville President Mark Lombardi, is right in the middle.
The first “lighthouse” is a digital assistant—created in partnership with tech company Capacity—that’s much more sophisticated than a typical chatbot. It’s basically like having a 24/7 digital employee, Hou says, and it would free up a student’s time to focus on the important aspects of college life.
“We spend about two-thirds of our day just searching for things. This is simply a really unlimited way to bring out the best in humans. Imagine what we could do with all the extra time,” he says.
In early June, Tim Yeadon, Capacity’s chief revenue officer, said the platform was being tested on a small number of students and would likely lower the cost of tech support through automation “to help students achieve better outcomes and better experiences while at Maryville.”
This type of project couldn’t have happened five or 10 years ago, but there’s been big breakthroughs in machine learning that have enabled companies like Capacity to develop language processing systems that can understand what questions people are asking, says Dave Costenaro, Capacity’s chief data officer.
The second “lighthouse” is a digital student ID that will allow contactless access to residence halls, rooms, libraries, dining and campus events—meaning students won’t have to touch door handles or scanners in a COVID world.
The third “lighthouse” is the school’s blockchain, what Hou calls a gigantic spreadsheet that captures every transaction on a network. Blockchain makes sense for higher education because it’s secure—data cannot be changed or deleted—and it creates a trusted environment since there’s a record for everything appearing on the chain, Hou explains.
In fact, Maryville has begun issuing students blockchain degree diplomas that are readily shareable and instantly verifiable so that any student looking for a job doesn’t have to wait for a verified transcript. “It’s a democratic solution,” he says, noting that education has been behind the curve on adopting blockchain. “I bet in four years you’ll see a blockchain voting system.”
Making higher education more inclusive
It’s the goal of educators, Hou says, to provide the highest quality education to the greatest number of people possible. But in his mind that isn’t what’s happening, at least in a lot of institutions. For some universities, like the Ivy League schools, reputations are partly based on the number of students excluded or denied. And Hou thinks that is completely against the mission of education.
“We’re not in the business of telling literally anyone that they’re not qualified to learn,” he says. “That is so wrong.”
Hou speaks fondly about a model called Harvard-meets-Hollywood, in which high-quality, high-impact, visually stimulating content is delivered by master teachers to hundreds of thousands of students—as opposed to a small lecture hall. It’ll be available whether a student is in Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Dimas, California; or any point in between.
Hou hopes that through technology, “education will be much more accessible and affordable, maybe even free, and that will help address the issues of inclusiveness and diversity.” Aiding in that transition, he predicts, will be machine learning and deep learning technology, as well as artificial intelligence.
Educating during a global pandemic
Hou says Maryville was uniquely prepared for the changes required by the COVID-19 pandemic because nearly two-thirds of the school’s students learn exclusively online. In the last decade he has overseen a number of digital initiatives, including making sure all online students have iPads. With one-to-one initiatives now common, he says that might seem trivial, but the program proved essential during COVID, allowing all students to be remote.
“You can imagine that when we decided to move all classes online, students had to pack and leave campus quickly, but they were already trained and prepared for it,” Hou says.
The school has been monitoring chat forums and communicating with students about how to improve the online learning environment, and Hou, who taught a class during the last semester, says he’s heard very few overall complaints—and none from his students.
“We’ve trained our faculty to develop courses for online, design instructions to make it more interesting for students instead of taking what they’d do in a lecture hall and move it online,” Hou says.
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