Deakin University is the first university in the world to implement IBM Watson. This decision was not simply about implementing a new system; it has spurred a rethink of our information management environment and has seen an unprecedented level of institutional collaboration to improve the student experience.
Watson is a ground-breaking cognitive computing platform that first came to prominence as a contestant on Jeopardy!, an American quiz show. Deakin is using Watson to power an advisory service for students within DeakinSync -- a single interface platform and online personal hub for all students. Students can access Watson while logged into DeakinSync, ask as many questions as they like and receive instant online answers to a broad range of questions related to the studentâs life and studies at university.
Through the power of cognitive computing, the more questions Watson is asked, the smarter Watson gets. The three characteristics that make Watson so powerful are its ability to:
1. manage natural language
2. create multiple hypotheses about a problem it is presented with and decide the most sensible solution
3. adapt -- receive feedback and adjust for next time.
Watson engages students in a conversation to ensure they get the information and advice they need. Over time, every student who asks Watson a question can expect tailored information based on a number of personal characteristics such as campus, course and enrolment status (including cloud, international and domestic).
Deakin has been the highest-ranked university in the State of Victoria for overall student learning satisfaction for the last five years (Australian Graduate Survey, 2010-2014). Recruiting Watson to help students navigate through their university experience represents Deakinâs continued commitment to improving its engagement with students, regardless of their geographical location or at what stage they are at in their university journey.
The objectives of the Watson project contribute to achieving Deakin's vision and agenda for the future and in particular our promise to delight our students during their experience at Deakin. The choice of IBM and Watson as leading edge cognitive technology is also well aligned to the goals of Deakin as the premier university in Australia driving the digital frontier.
Deakin has implemented the Watson Engagement Adviser application as a key part of student self-service. The Watson Engagement Adviser aims to:
- provide instant online answers to Deakin's 50,000 students anytime, anywhere, 24/7/365 (24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year)
- revolutionise the student experience and engagement and transform the way students get advice and answers to questions about their study and life at Deakin
- be the one-stop destination for students to find the information they need, as well as how and when they want it
- enable new students, who generate the most questions, to enjoy a smoother start to their lives at university
- free up time for student service staff to enable them to respond and attend to more critical and complex issues
- become an integral part of the Student Service Network and be a key tool for student self-service and the provision of advice and information within the student portal DeakinSync.
Deakin University's partnership with IBM also extends to the curriculum, with cognitive computing units using Watson being offered from 2016 within IT courses; internships at IBM; research activities; and future options for using Watson to benefit the student and graduate experience.
Implementation of Watson -- in a world-first -- demonstrates Deakin's critical role in driving the digital frontier and how Deakin is fulfilling its objective to support students -- from their first point of contact through their journey until they graduate -- by adopting technology.
Implementation of Watson has taken place -- and continues to be developed -- over stages. The evolutionary nature of this leading-edge technology means that both IBM and Deakin are learning as the project progresses. Each stage builds on the functionality of the previous.
First release (February 2015) provides simple support in the role of an information assistant particularly for commencing students -- answering general and how-to questions. For example:
What do I need to do to enrol?
What social activities are available at Deakin?
The identification and development of the initial Watson knowledge base (corpus) was based on actual student questions. Watson was then trained and tested on the multiplicity of variations in speech and terminology to develop its knowledge of Deakin and the higher education sector.
Second release (August 2015) builds on the Watson corpus using the University's content management systems. This is where Watson's potential cognitive capabilities will really come to life as Watson responds to a more comprehensive range of student questions.
It builds on Watson's knowledge of student questions and the context of Deakin developed in the first release and can draw answers from any of the ingested material in the corpus. As more questions are asked and students choose their preferred answers, Watson will continue to learn and build confidence in the answers provided.
Third release (November/December 2015) will bring in a number of contextual factors to improve responses to student questions by understanding a student's campus, course and enrolment status. It will also significantly expand the corpus by including course and career information. For example:
Are there prerequisites for this course? (Watson will recognise the student's course)
Can I see a nurse? (Watson will recognise the student's campus)
When are my fees due? (Watson will recognise whether the student is international or domestic and which course they are enrolled in)
A significant coordination effort has seen all University service areas actively involved in project development: from identifying the first questions and answers, reviewing and improving our information environment; and testing, training and promoting Watson to students as an integral part of the service environment.
One of the most exciting aspects has been student engagement. To ensure Watson understands the student voice, the project has involved hundreds of students in the training and testing of Watson. The project team has also employed a number of new graduates and current students to work on the project. The opportunity to develop a new leading-edge digital technology with the support of Deakin's students has brought the University community together and enabled delivery of the first release just four months after project initiation.
The project has managed expectations well, due in large part to the early and ongoing engagement with students and staff. Examples of this engagement include: staff forums, discussion boards, feedback mechanisms built into Watson, student and staff testing sessions where staff and students were asked for their feedback, and project meetings. The project team site includes weekly news items and has the functionality for discussions and feedback to be posted to the University community.
The whole Deakin community has recognised this is new, leading-edge technology which has prepared the ground for the community's ongoing engagement. Through this ongoing engagement, Watson has become smarter and able to answer more questions.
There has been considerable interest in the education and technology sectors about Watson and project team members and University executive members have spoken at conferences and forums and been interviewed by various newspapers and magazines to share their knowledge. Deakin staff have presented to CIO/IT conferences, the EduTech Conference (Brisbane, June 2015), the National Student Service Centres Conference (June 2015) and others.
The initial goals of the project were to provide Deakin's 10,000 commencing students with an easy to use online tool to respond to their everyday questions. The first release of Watson readily achieved this. In addition:
- the first release of Watson in February 2015 resulted in a 5-10% reduction in enquiries to key service areas
- in the first trimester there were more than 30,000 questions asked with an average of 2.6 questions per conversation
- student and staff feedback has been positive, with staff stating that Watson's replies have helped them respond to student queries better.
The implementation of Watson at Deakin is also having a positive impact on staff and the University:
- staff have reflected on all content management systems (for example, the website) to ensure succinct, accurate and consistent information that can be readily translated into responses to student questions via Watson
- a reduction in the number of enquiries has enabled staff to provide more immediate support to complex student requests
- staff have worked collaboratively to improve business processes - for example, the provision of course advice, assignment submission, self service opportunities and enquiry management - and to work towards more consistent business practices across the University. This effort will be ongoing.
Future releases of Watson planned for August and November/December 2015 will build on this success providing answers to more complex and contextual questions from students across a broader range of categories.
By then, Watson will be poised to confidently answer questions and provide tailored advice across a range of topics, such as admissions, course and unit information, enrolment, fees and financial assistance, student residential services, extracurricular skills development, health and wellness, facilities and job placement, employment preparation, job skills assessment and academic help.
Deakin's approach to revolutionising the student experience and delighting our students is a work in progress and it always will be. Culturally there are expectations for ease of use, availability and reliability of technology and increasingly there are also expectations that it will be seamless, integrated and personal.
At Deakin we are developing an understanding of what is required from digital relationships; recognising our students as unique individuals but at scale. This digital intimacy requires new approaches to student engagement and this is what Deakin is striving to realise in part through the implementation of Watson and cognitive technology. It is an organisation-wide effort.
Deakin is working with IBM Research to build on the current project and our vision of personalised advice when and where students need it. The current project is only the beginning. Watson is capable of processing vast amounts of big data to uncover new patterns and insights and this is where the current limits of artificial intelligence will be pushed further.
We are working towards our longer-term goal for a personalised adviser to guide students in all things relating to their studies including courses, career objectives and expectations of the jobs market, as well as the services on campus and in the cloud.
As we build the Watson corpus, it will get better at drawing from all the data it has ingested. Moving further along, Watson will become adept at analysing the data to contextualise queries and provide tailored replies.
Watson's role at the University will grow as it is further customised and as artificial intelligence technology develops. Watson fits in well at Deakin -- it is bold, untried, fun and being co-created with students. It is helping us review and improve the way we do things -- these are all attributes of the Deakin personality.