Cognitive computing will be well suited to mapping out personalised learning paths."

The challenges of navigating student life can be daunting for those starting off at university, especially if they're also juggling work and family commitments. To help students tackle these challenges, Auckland's Unitec Institute of Technology is planning for the day when students will be able to call on artificial intelligence technology as a trusted adviser – any time of the day or night.

“In a competitive market for education services, Unitec is determined to ensure that students will be able to engage with the institution on their own terms and in their own time,” Unitec chief executive officer Dr Rick Ede says. He sees cognitive computing as an effective way to support students when they need information, whether it's help finding their way around campus or assistance with course advice to help them plan their careers.

“Education and career paths have become much less linear, and this does add a new layer of complexity and challenge for students,” Ede says. In response, tertiary education providers are embracing new disciplines and offering more courses. This opens up new opportunities for students but also makes it more difficult to choose classes that ensure they’re meeting prerequisites to achieve their goals.

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While all of this course information is available in the traditional prospectus, cognitive computing is well suited to mapping out personalised learning paths.

An artificial intelligence system won't usurp the role of Unitec's student advisers and guidance counsellors, Ede says. Instead, it will help those staff make the most of their time and reach as many students as possible.

"Although we provide a wealth of information to our students, the challenge lies in helping them navigate through it all and find context-relevant answers on the spot,” he says. “Our staff do an amazing job but with the increasing volume of information, it’s difficult to be across everything. They can't be on call 24/7, and we also need to ensure a level of consistency, which is where AI could really help.”

Ede says higher education institutions are struggling to provide student-specific answers. “They have a bunch of teams focused on providing different kinds of information and support, but sharing information between them is a challenge,” he says. “No single person can have all the answers, but this technology could help our staff synthesise all that data to provide students with relevant answers when they need them."

Learning as they go

Cognitive computing also has a role to play in the classroom, with IBM’s AI technology, Watson, proving to be an effective teaching assistant at US university Georgia Tech. Students enrolled in Georgia Tech's online artificial intelligence course gave teaching assistant "Jill Watson" high marks for accuracy, not realising that she was the creation of graduate students putting IBM's cognitive computing platform to work.

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Jill Watson studied 40,000 posts in the class online discussion forum to prepare for the role of teaching assistant, which involved not only menial tasks such as reminding students of assignment due dates but also answering complex queries regarding classes, subject matter and assignments. Her quick response times, helpful advice and grasp of natural language won the students’ approval.

"The fact that Jill Watson proved to be so helpful and effective shows that there is certainly a place for cognitive computing in education," Ede says. "It's not just a Google search on steroids because Watson keeps improving as it learns, getting better and better over time.

"I think we're only just scratching the surface of what's going to be possible. We're not talking about replacing real teachers but rather using machines to help people be more effective and make the most of their time so they can better serve students."

While Unitec eventually plans to put cognitive computing to work helping students and teachers, it’s starting by augmenting the marketing team’s recruitment efforts, applying IBM Analytics to enrolment pipeline data. The Business Intelligence team searches for insight from prospective students, examining inquiries and applications through to enrolment data to provide real-time feedback to hone recruiting efforts.

IBM NZ Unitec

"It used to take days or even weeks to analyse some of the trends to see how our enrolment campaigns were tracking against our historical data, but now we're reducing that to hours or even minutes," Ede says. "A marketer can easily see whether the number of applications we've received for a particular course is down and then assess the best way to quickly turn that around.

"Unitec can already see how cognitive computing can augment our capability to deal with complex and multi-layered challenges, helping us prepare our students for the challenges that lie ahead."


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