When AI Meets Education: Strategies for Realizing the Potential

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Artificial Intelligence and related technologies presents new and powerful tools with the potential to positively impact the student experience. Leaders from Penn State’s EdTech Network, a part of the Invent Penn State initiative, will highlight strategies to build community, stimulate research and development, and develop partnerships with leading AI providers.


Since 2012, Dr. Ragan has served as a Co-Director for the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State University where he helps direct the Center’s mission of research, scholarship, technology innovation, and leadership development programming. Dr. Ragan has been a part of the creation and management of Penn State’s World Campus since it’s inception in 1998 serving as Director for Instructional Design and Development and Director of Faculty Development. Since 2009, Dr. Ragan has served as Co-Director of the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL). In partnership with the leadership at the Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan-C), IELOL addresses the operational and strategic leadership of the design, development, and preparation of the next-generation of leadership in online learning. Dr. Ragan has served as founding co-director and faculty of the EDUCAUSE Learning Technology Leadership program (2005-2007). He is also active in the design and delivery of international leadership development institutes. In 2011, Lawrence Ragan was recognized as a Sloan-C Faculty Fellow.
Brad Zdenek is the Innovation Strategist for the Nittany AI Alliance at Penn State, bringing to the team over 20 years of experience in supporting, developing, and leveraging disruptive technologies to improve the student experience across the K-20 spectrum. Prior to joining Penn State, Brad solidified his love of education while teaching middle school social studies in North Carolina. After choosing to pursue his graduate studies, Brad took on a number of roles at Penn State, including directing the professional development and outreach efforts for both the STEMScouts and Regional Educational Laboratory - Mid-Atlantic initiatives, helping K-12 teachers to leverage research-based practices for improving teaching and learning. More recently, Brad served as Innovation Strategist for the Center for Online Innovation in Learning, strategically building and supporting a culture of innovation across the university. Brad is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership at Penn State with research interests that include educational ethics, innovation, and the integration and diffusion of educational technology.

Extended Abstract

Penn State’s EdTech Network, a pillar of the Invent Penn State initiative, seeks to advance the student experience through the use and creation of innovative solutions to address challenges in higher education. The goals of the EdTech Network are focused on exploring and harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and related technologies to increase instructional effectiveness, improve administrative efficiencies, and empower the various stakeholders to design and development solutions that can brought to market serving larger populations. In pursuit of those goals, we continually strive to develop and support an ecosystem of resources, inspiration, and opportunities for our faculty, staff, and external partners while creating uncommon opportunities for our students.

Artificial Intelligence and related technologies present new and powerful tools with the potential to dramatically impact the student experience. The Edtech Network has identified AI as having a major impact on all dimensions of the education enterprise and its leadership has developed a series of strategies to advance the exploration and application of these technologies to improve the student experience at Penn State and beyond. These strategies focus on three primary domains, 1) building active and engaged communities that focus on generating discussion, collaboration and networking, 2) stimulating innovations applying AI to educational challenges, and 3) pursuing partnerships with existing vendors with AI solutions. This session will highlight the variety of approaches and methods within each of these focus areas.

I. Building Active and Engaged Communities

In order to successfully realize the potential of AI and related technologies in all dimensions of the higher education enterprise, strategies for establishing communities of students, staff and faculty are being deployed. For each stakeholder community, specialized programs have been tailored to meet the needs and further cross fertilization of ideas and activities. As well, programs that intentionally mix the various stakeholder groups foster networks and communications based on shared interest in the design, development, and application of AI technologies.

Program strategies include:

Engage Symposium

The annual Engage symposium will provide opportunities for faculty across disciplines to share research efforts, seek collaborations, and extend the knowledge and understanding of the issues around AI. A critical part of the symposium will be participation from vendors, for example IBM, IPSoft, and Google to showcase existing and planned AI-based solutions.

Student Associates Program

The EdTech Student Associates program enables a select group of Penn State students to actively explore the intersection of educational technology and artificial intelligence in order to reimagine the educational experience at Penn State. 

The ETN Student Associates experience provides access to resources that complement the student’s academic studies, participation in clubs and organizations, internships, and other institutional educational technology, AI and entrepreneurship activities.

EdTech Connect

The EdTech Network hosts monthly “coffee chat” style gatherings for faculty, staff, and students to review existing AI-related projects. The gathering will allow for both project highlight and sharing as well as networking discussions and “hot topics” for sharing within the community.


The EdTech Network actively participates in supporting a variety of student hack-a-thon programs. Although the hack-a-thon typically embraces a wide variety of technological solutions, by featuring and rewarding idea and product solutions based on AI technologies, students actively participate in generating creative nad innovative solutions. Additionally, by engaging vendor partners as supporters of the hack-a-thons, the students can harness the power of existing technology solutions.

EdTech Fischer Speaker Series

The EdTech Network Speaker Series is an opportunity to engage the Penn State community and beyond with world-class scientist, researchers, industry leaders, and theorists on a wide variety of topics impacting innovation in education and the transformation of the educational process. This format enables a wide range of new ideas and innovative thinking to influence and inform all institutional stakeholders.

Specialized Workshops

A variety of specialized workshops around the design, development, and application of AI and related technologies will be offered. Using the Design Thinking format for example, participants explore creative AI-based solutions to existing and future issues impacting higher education.

II. Stimulating Research and Development in AI and Related Technologies

To support and inspire our community in the development of real solutions to the challenges faced across the higher education landscape, the EdTech Network has developed a combination of grants, challenges, and hackathons. These unique approaches build upon one another, providing multiple entry points and levels of investment for innovative thinkers to join in our efforts.

An initial entry point for our student community occurs each year at HackPSU. The event, Penn State’s premier hackathon, includes over 650 students spend 24 hours focusing their creativity and development skills on various challenges presented by their sponsors. Chief among these is the EdTech challenge in which we engage students to create entry-level prototypes of solutions to improve the student experience.

Building upon these entry level solutions, the EdTech Network launched the Nittany Watson Challenge, a partnership with IBM to explore the potential of their Watson platform to improve the student experience at Penn State. In this innovative grant program over 150 students, faculty, and staff from across Penn State’s 25 campuses, including many from HackPSU, proposed solutions to the challenges and inefficiencies they face each day. From those ideas, a panel of judges awarded 10 projects $5,000 each in seed money for the development of a prototype solution using IBM’s Watson services.  These prototypes then competed to be among five projects to receive an additional $10,000 each in funding to support the development of a pilot-ready minimum viable product (MVP).

Further development of, and research around, these and additional MVPs can then be supported through a Research Initiation Grant (RIG) program, offering additional levels of funding to support projects as they move through a pilot phase and (hopefully) eventual adoption.

This comprehensive model is leading to significant achievements in the student experience at Penn State and beyond and is contributing to the development and nurturing of a community-driven culture of research and development.

III. Pursuing Vendor Partnerships

AI and related technologies are not a new technology innovation. Beginning in the 1950’s, theories, designs and products have been actively been under development and refinement. Recent advances in technology capabilities and real-life applications of these technologies have moved AI to the forefront in many domains. From personal guidance systems, problem-solving algorithms in medical research and smart devices of all types, industries are racing to bring innovative, powerful and sometime scary AI applications to the market.

The EdTech Network seeks to actively engage with vendors possessing existing solutions or developing new approaches that hold promise to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of higher education. With a focus on improving the student experience, these technologies, each with unique capabilities and functions, can be leveraged through the appropriate application to jump-start the transformation of higher education.