UNSW Sydney has transformed the learning experience for engineering students with an AI-infused and Teams-enriched solution while instituting reforms designed to reduce the risk of student drop outs.
UNSW Sydney is one of Australia’s leading universities with around 17,000 students enrolled in the engineering faculty. The large student cohort means that there can be 500 students enrolled in a class at any one time.
To optimise their learning opportunity and reduce the risk of drop out, Dr David Kellermann, a senior lecturer in the school of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, has developed and deployed Microsoft Teams to promote collaboration and communication. This has been augmented by artificial intelligence and rich data analytics.
In order to be able to respond to rising queries prompted by the enhanced student engagement encouraged by Teams, Dr Kellermann conceived Question bot – an AI infused chatbot that is able to answer student queries. It uses machine learning to build a body of knowledge that students can tap for support 24×7.
Because all of Dr Kellermann’s lectures are captured in Stream, which is a SharePoint asset, the QuestionBot provides an answer to their question but is also able to direct students to the exact point in the lecture video where the relevant issue is being addressed.
Dr Kellermann, Microsoft partner Cloud Collective, and just one developer, used Graph API and Bot Framework, to develop Question bot in just eight weeks. Kellermann uses the QnA Maker Azure machine learning cognitive service to train the bot.
Data insights support student success
While UNSW has one of the highest bachelor degree completion rates with around 17 in 20 students successfully completing their studies, Dr Kellermann has also used the rich insights that are available from the data collected across the platform to help identify at-risk students, and then personally engage with them to see if they need extra support to help them through rocky periods and ultimately to complete their studies.
Dr Kellermann shared a stage with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Microsoft’s Inspire 2019 event in Las Vegas, to reveal how Teams and AI are transforming learning at UNSW Sydney and setting a new high watermark for student support.
“Question bot is actually creating a study resource for the students filtered by topic. It’s not a textbook, it’s made out of their own collaboration, their own discussion automatically. In fact, in the first two weeks alone, Question bot created 200 high-quality topic filtered question and answer pairs,” said Dr Kellermann.
“I use QnA Maker, a Cognitive Service on Azure, in order to train the AI of the bot. And within a couple of weeks, it started answering questions on its own. But not just that, Question Bot was also able to direct the students back to the conversations where their peers had been talking about similar problems. That’s reconnecting people and building learning communities.”
Democratised access to artificial intelligence
The intuitive nature of Microsoft cognitive services has been designed to democratise access to AI, allowing more people to develop their own AI-infused solutions. Dr Kellermann has been able to boost impact by using QR codes in student workbooks that instantly alert both lecturers and Question bot to the topic being tackled when a student poses a question.
According to Steven Miller, Education lead of Microsoft Australia; “We are focussed on delivering solutions and tools that help infuse AI across multiple tasks and ensuring that all sectors and all enterprises have access to the sorts of data and insights that help to transform their operations. And we are working directly with partners and customers to help develop the skills that will allow this to happen fast.
“Solutions like AI Builder in the PowerApp family make it easier for customers to create their own AI-infused applications, while the work we have done to percolate intelligence into business applications like Dynamics 365 can be a game changer for business of all sizes.
“The AI-led transformation led by Dr Kellermann is attracting attention from learning institutions all over the world, and reinforcing UNSW Sydney’s global reputation as a leader in learning.”
The data collection that’s amassed from across the platform establishes a digital feedback loop for UNSW Sydney that is available to students and lecturers. Both can see how they are travelling with their studies, and also glean context about their results.
That’s important because a student might be worried about what seems like a low score on one test, for example – but the context from the data might show it was a really tough question and they actually did quite well. The data also provides Dr Kellermann with early warning of students at risk of dropping out – if their marks suddenly slide, or engagement falls away – allowing him to personally reach out to offer support and help them through what might otherwise be a rocky period.
“We’re actually able to identify at risk students by week four of the course. I reach out personally to every one of those at-risk students to say, ‘Hey, how can I help?’,“ he said.
Dr Kellermann explained that by integrating systems, he now has access to very highly structured data on SQL. This allows one-click Power BI dashboards to be created – which can be accessed from smartphones – for students to get their marks and see them in context.
He has also used artificial intelligence to create personalised study plans for each student to improve their learning outcomes.
“I used 2017 data to train an Azure Machine Learning model to correlate all of the information against student performance. And using a database of competency-ranked resources — every single topic against every difficulty level, and an algorithm on .NET, we automatically assembled 500 individual personalised optimised study packs for every student based on the prediction of not only their exam results, but their exam results for every individual question two weeks before. And uploaded to SharePoint with personal access, one click in Teams.”
Sulabh Jain, Principal Consultant from Antares Solutions, member of the Cloud Collective commented that; “The Cloud Collective are proud to have been able to develop a solution that has allowed students to use Teams to engage with their teaching community and fellow students. The solution has enabled them to interact in real-time, solving complex problems in an enriched learning environment. When we first started working on the Question Bot it began quite simply as a bot to answer repetitive student questions. However, we quickly realised its potential. e have continued to develop the bot’s capabilities to align with the specific needs of UNSW and its students, adding features such as QR codes and custom study packs. What’s more exciting is that the QBot will continue to evolve as we develop it even further in future, helping to revolutionise the education industry and realise the incredible impact that technology can have within this sector”.