By Jane den Hollander
The core objective of any university is to enrich and extend the minds of our students, setting them up with the right skills and knowledge for life and for employment. For those arriving on campus for the first time, however, getting accustomed to everything from class locations to extracurricular schedules can leave little headspace for learning.
At Deakin University, we’ve long felt that the quality of student information directly impacts the quality of their subsequent learning experiences – we believe in being bold and offering a premium learning experience for students to thrive in any environment, with the skills and values to enable life-long success.
A range of initiatives, including our one-stop personal information and learning site for students called DeakinSync, saw us ranked the highest in our state for overall student learning satisfaction. But we’re constantly asking ourselves the question: how can we make learning at Deakin as frictionless and personalised as possible for our students?
We believe Watson is a major part of the answer. Deakin University will be the first university in the world to deploy IBM’s cognitive computing platform, initially using it as a core part of self-service for student orientation. Watson, like any student advisor, learns from the questions it gets asked, and uses this “experience” to improve its answers.
This means Watson can provide increasingly quick and useful answers to the most common questions that students ask. It does so on a 24/7 basis, covering most aspects of university life with equal expertise. Perhaps most importantly, Watson can understand natural-language questions, meaning a new student can type in “where should I go to enrol?” and get an answer back in similarly comprehensible English. It’s insightful, accurate, and over time will be very personal too.
If you’re a new student at Deakin, you’ll find that you get faster and more precise answers about common topics (like admissions and enrolment, tuition, and ancillaries like student housing or financial assistance) as a result of Watson. We expect that international and mature-age returning students will gain even more benefits, as the questions asked by new students will form an increasingly comprehensive databank that then supports everyone’s queries. Even our student centre employees and volunteers will find it easier to support their own knowledge with supplementary details provided by Watson.
The applications of cognitive computing, however, go far beyond just Orientation Week. Watson’s core enterprise function has traditionally been to assist decision-making: using so-called “Big Data” and its own machine-learning experience to assess the probable outcomes of any number of potential actions. This has broad implications for everything from wealth management to, in the case of tertiary institutions, students’ career decisions.
Our plan includes using Watson to guide students through decisions about their future careers, helping “optimise” their choices to hopefully enhance their employment opportunities and career satisfaction down the track. Another is for Watson to recognise students and provide them increasingly personalised information over the course of their student journey – acting as a sort of super-advisor that matures and adjust as students themselves do.
Will we use Watson to tackle academic challenges themselves? The possibility is definitely there, particularly given the numerous applications being explored by other research institutions. Big Data and analytics are already a major focus for Deakin University, including curricula partnerships with IBM and other industry leaders to ensure our students have the most applicable and versatile skills to take on equally big challenges. We operate in an unpredictable new environment of digital change. Watson is creative, it’s cutting-edge and represents thinking right on the edge of the digital frontier – and that’s exactly where Deakin wants to be to help our students get the jobs of the future.