Originally published: The Chronicle of Higher Education | By Goldie Blumenstyk | May 26, 2017

The Chronicle’s third annual Shark Tank: Edu Edition, held during the South by Southwest Edu conference in March, featured five people pitching ideas — some concrete, some theoretical — to improve higher education.

Two of the contestants presented plans to improve the study-abroad experience. Another proposed ways to help faculty develop teaching skills. The fourth outlined a business model that could help ease the friction students face when transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions, and the fifth offered experimental plans to use artificial intelligence and text-messaging “bots” to tackle problems in student retention. The audio of the session has just been posted; listen to it here.

Three “sharks” — Paul Freedman, co-founder of the educational-technology studio Entangled Ventures, Jason Jones, director of educational technology at Trinity College and a contributor to The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, and this reporter — had no money to offer in return. But we — along with the audience and the moderator, The Chronicle’s Scott Carlson — did press the participants with questions that in some cases could pass for advice.

Mark Farmer, director of higher education and public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, pitched an idea for a new federal fund that would help colleges tailor study-abroad options to their student bodies. Most of the questions that he was asked centered on how to make his case now that President Trump has shown skepticism of colleges and hostility to internationalization. Mr. Farmer said “the economic case” for broadening students’ experiences would at least have bipartisan appeal. (On the audio, his pitch begins around 1:40.)

Sean O’Brien, founder of a new company called Affordable College, described how four-year institutions could become more transfer-friendly by collaborating more intentionally — and financially — with community colleges. Mr. Freedman questioned that premise, noting that colleges’ transfer practices can often be opaque to prospective students. Mr. O’Brien said the financial model of his venture is designed to give four-year institutions incentives to improve that. (On the audio, his pitch begins around 12:15.)

Lauren Scranton, knowledge and innovation leader at NAC Architecture, pitched her idea for a traveling pop-up studio that makes one-week stops, offering prospective faculty members intensive training in new techniques, including inventive ways to use their classroom space. (She said she was inspired by SparkTruck, which bills itself as “an educational build-mobile. .”) Mr. Jones agreed that there was value to the idea but questioned whether she appreciated the need to tailor teaching strategies so they would reflect the differences that professors face at different kinds of institutions. (On the audio, her pitch begins around 22:30.)

Kyle Parker, a senior software engineer at Ball State University, helped create an app that students can use to keep track of their photographs, journal notes, and other materials while traveling on study-abroad programs. He’s since helped turn it into a commercial product, The Traveler, which includes an Android app and a companion website. (An iPhone version is in the works.) The app has been used by Ball State students in a dozen disciplines in more than 40 countries. After hearing years of talk about how college students supposedly crave mobile technologies as part of their education, it was nice to see an example in which such a product seemed to make perfect sense. It seemed to me it would be even more useful as an educational tool if it were more formally tied into assignments from the students’ professors. (On the audio, his pitch begins around 32:20.)

AdmitHub, a company that uses artificial intelligence to activate its text messages to students, has already had researchers verify its effectiveness in helping Georgia State University avoid the problem of “summer melt.” (The term describes when students make an enrollment deposit but fail to make the transition from high school to college.) Could the same technology work for retention? That’s the question the company’s founder, Andrew Magliozzi, raised in his pitch. (It begins at around 42:30 on the audio.)

We sharks were intrigued, but as Mr. Freedman noted, many of the issues that cause a student to leave college can be more “intensely personal” — and harder to resolve with an AI-powered text message — than some of the routine administrative matters that deter prospective freshmen from ultimately enrolling. Mr. Magliozzi said he is eager to hear from universities willing to try with him. But for the first year, he acknowledged, his AI bot “likely will be very stupid when it comes to student affairs.” Not only do students know their messages are coming from a bot, Mr. Magliozzi said, but many of them seem to prefer it that way: Being contacted by a bot instead of a human, he said, “they didn’t feel judged.”

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.