IBM Watson for Students and Education

Deakin University creates 24/7/365 online student advisory service

No doubt about it, artificial intelligence is fast becoming a technology that powers our everyday life. From virtual personal assistants like Siri, to predictive consumer purchase systems to smart home devices that adjust our thermostats and activate our appliances based on behavior patterns. And now, Deakin University in Australia is taking artificial intelligence to new and exciting heights in its quest to reimagine the student experience.

Known for its ambitious efforts to drive the digital frontier, Deakin joined forces with IBM to become the world’s first university to implement IBM Watson, an intelligent computer system that combines natural language processing with machine learning to provide accurate information and advice.

This unique partnership grew out of a university-wide initiative to greatly enhance the student experience by creating a rapid response online student advisory service which is accessible around the clock throughout the year and from any mobile device. So using IBM’s groundbreaking Watson technology, Deakin is now offering customized support on a mass scale to its almost 50,000 students.

To find the information they need, students simply log into the advisory system and ask a question around a wide range of topics from admissions, enrollment and financial assistance to course information, job skills assessment, and general academic help. And within seconds the system provides them with a customized answer.

It can also walk students through certain campus processes such as submitting assignments, enrolling in courses, and even paying for parking. There are also plans under way to incorporate a prompting feature – something Siri-like – for reminding students of an upcoming test, or encouraging them to join their peers in a virtual meeting room.

Even more impressive, Watson gets smarter with each question, which may explain how this IBM technology made headlines a few years ago when it beat a group of human champions on the US game show Jeopardy.

Thus far Deakin is delighted with the new advisory system which receives as many as sixteen hundred queries a month. But of course the best way to understand its true impact is to hear from the students themselves.

“Watson has never been done, has never been brought to students before in the whole entire world.”

“Watson is artificial intelligence.”

“When you ask Watson a question, it’s capable of rationally understanding that question and from learning from experience.”

“It’s technology that learns over time.”

“It’s more than just a search engine, it can think for itself.”

“At this point in time it’s in the early days of Watson.”

“Like a human, it has to start with the baby stages.”

“Watson is technology that puts Deakin in front.”

“It’s learning, but we’re teaching it.”

“It also shows that Deakin are seeking to find new ways to connect with students and to reach the student body. You know, at any time in the day and no matter where they are in the world.”

With artificial intelligence, Deakin University is setting new trends in technology-enhanced student services.

Deakin University has partnered with IBM to be the first university worldwide to implement IBM Watson. The goal was to create a 24/7/365 online student advisory service that will improve the student experience.

Integrated with their single interface platform and online personal hub, DeakinSync, students can easily access the system, ask questions, and receive instant online answers. Watson engages students in a conversation with the goal of ensuring they get the correct information and advice.

By managing natural language, Watson creates hypotheses around the question to determine the most sensible answers. By adapting as it receives feedback, it adjusts for the next time the question is asked. WatsIBM Watson university programon gets smarter as it is asked more questions.

Through a series of implementation phases, Deakin University works with IBM, students, staff and community to continue development. Hundreds of students have been involved in the training and testing of Watson. Improvement continues through a project site team, staff forums, discussion boards, testing and feedback.

Initially, Deakin provided this online tool to its 10,000 commencing students for the purpose of answering questions. The result was a 5-10% reduction in enquiries managed by staff, with over 30,000 questions answered in the first trimester. This enabled staff to handle the more complex questions.

This prompted ongoing work on the content management system in order to ensure information is consistent, accurate and succinct so it can be easily translated into responses. The staff has likewise collaborated to improve business processes and practices across the university so that Watson can be used for much more.

The third phase expanded the data to include information that will enable contextual factors, such as knowing the student’s campus, courses and enrollment status in order to improve responses. For example, if asked, “Where can I get food?”, “Where is the nurse located?” or “When are my fees due?”, Watson will recognize the student’s location and respond with the correct information.

A Collaborative Educational Partnership

Working with IBM Research, Deakin continues to build on the project with the goal for Watson to be a personalized adviser system guiding students in everything related to their studies.

By providing tailored advice across all areas including admissions, enrollment, financial assistance, course and unit information, job skills assessment and placement and general academic help, Deakin hopes to revolutionize the student experience.

Other ways Deakin University is leading the way in innovation in online learning include projects that will serve students by prompting them as a personal assistant might. It can remind the student that they have an upcoming test or encourage them to join two of their peers in a virtual meeting room.

Another focus is using augmented reality in unique ways such as providing an engaging ECG experience for a medical student or using a bionic man overlaid with megatronics. One Chinese mother was thrilled to have the campus tour with translation services for Mandarin, which made her experience incredible.

It is vision, superb faculty and an outstanding technology organization that puts Deakin University at the forefront of innovation.