The Promise, Peril, and Possibility of Data, Analytics, and AI in Higher Education (6 of 7): Learner Connections with People & Organizations

In this seven-part series, I’ve explored possibilities of AI and big data for pre-enrollment, student learning, student retention and success, and overall organizational help. What else is left? How about life and learning beyond college?

If we live in a connected age, then building meaningful connections is an important life skill, and AI is already playing a larger role in facilitating such connections. We see this on job boards, dating web sites, how we shop, and the search engines that we use.

As I mentioned in an earlier part of this series, the current means by which students search for and select a school is flawed. We use false and misleading data, even if from trusted sources. Our decision-making heuristics are limited at best, and the number of college dropouts alone seems to point to potential mismatches (even after accounting for the many other reasons for leaving college).

This isn’t the only place where our approach to making connections is poor. The means by which people and employers find each other is also archaic and ineffective. A few organizations might have mastered the art and science of finding and keeping the right people, but for so many others, it is hit and miss, and most of the time the best fit for the job never even knows that the job is an option or a good potential match.

The same problems exist in how we find and connect with people, organizations, and even products. This is one area where big data and AI will continue to play a growing role in our lives. As with any technology, there will be benefits and losses involved, but this is the time to start thinking about how learning communities can help students begin to build meaningful connections.

You can graduate with all the competence and confidence in the world. Now how do you connect with people and organizations? Many people do fine in this area, but there are even more promising possibilities.

In Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon makes the claim that, “if you are not online, you don’t exist.” The point is that you are not easily discoverable unless you have an online presence. Yet, there are so many people who are online and they are still not easily discoverable.

I’m convinced that this will be one of the next great iterations of the web, the current and emerging technologies that allow people to discover and be discovered. The more rich data available for the systems to mine, the more effective they will be at helping to match and connect.

As a starting point, higher education communities are wise to begin thinking through how to equip learners to build their online identities, seek out and make connections, as well as review and select from the many and emerging options. How do we help people tell and share their ongoing story in a way that allows them to achieve their goals and build the connections that are most meaningful to them?

I’ve built an online identity that has led me around the world, allowed me to meet fascinating friends and colleagues, provided me with more job offers and possibilities than I could have ever imagined, and that offers me lessons from an incredible and diverse array of people. Not everyone wants or needs the particular set of connections that I’ve cultivated, but the idea of learning about the nature, affordances, and limitations of online identity and connectivity is increasingly useful for many life journeys.

Learning to tell your story and connect with people on the basis of that story is a valuable career skill in the 21st century, and devising ways to discover and connect through these stories is a collection of billion-dollar businesses of the future. Perhaps forward-thinking higher education communities can help shape some of that future while also helping out their students in the present.