With a Siri-Like Assistant, this Australian U. Wants to Rethink the...

Digital Learning

With a Siri-Like Assistant, this Australian U. Wants to Rethink the Student Experience

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 29, 2018

With a Siri-Like Assistant, this Australian U. Wants to Rethink the Student Experience
Beverley Oliver, of Deakin U., during a recent EdSurge Live discussion.

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

In Australia, there’s a university that was set up to focus on distance education. It’s called Deakin University, and started about 40 years ago—before the internet really got going—when distance education often meant sending lessons through snail mail.

These days online courses have replaced correspondence at Deakin. But officials worry that if they’re not careful, they’ll just end up offering the same kind of education-by-mail ethos in a digital format. They’re trying to reboot their online efforts in what they are calling a “cloud campus,” where educational experiences are designed to be digital first.

Since Deakin University has plenty of in-person students these days as well, officials want to reinvent the campus experience as well, by trying to blend education into busy lives. That has meant developing their own personal assistant for students, a bit like Siri or Alexa, that can remind you to do your homework. While such a tool may make sense for students needing to fit in studies amid work, family and life, it also raises thorny privacy issues.

To find out more about what this university down under is up to, EdSurge recently sat down with Beverley Oliver, deputy vice chancellor for education at Deakin. The conversation took place at the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego, as part of our EdSurge Live video forum, where people tuned in and asked questions.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). You can also watch the complete conversation, or read highlights from the conversation below (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: How does Deakin University fit in with the Australian higher-ed system as a whole?

Oliver: For a population of around 23 to 25 million, we have about 40 universities. So these are mostly public universities, funded by the government. Deakin is about the sixth or seventh largest, depending when you take the count, and it would be described, generally, as a middle-tier and rising university. It was founded as a distance educator for Australia—to provide access to education for Australians who couldn’t actually go to a campus and, as you would know, we have a lot of distance in Australia. And it was the post model, right? It was the printing and posting materials for many years.

Then in more recent years, we’ve gone online. So we have 60,000 students, who are basically studying in five campuses, four of which are on-site campuses. But we’ve declared our other campus an online campus, and we call it the “cloud campus.” We wanted to use the word “cloud” because we didn’t want to just keep doing the traditional LMS, put the slides in there, capture the lecture, beam it out to people, like what I call the electronic post office in the sky.

What makes “cloud courses” different?

What we’re doing in the new model is taking the course over here, surrounding the academic with a team of experts, learning designers and producers, and capturing all the material, [and adding] social learning. So it’s not designed like a usual LMS, which is just posted there, and it’s quite static or with just a discussion forum.

What we want is much more socially engaged. It’s about small steps, bringing the student along in a digital narrative, and engaging at every step of the process. So we’re working with the academic staff, but we’re also putting more coaches, mentors and tutors around them, to engage with the students as well.

Deakin has also gotten a lot of attention for its personal assistant, Deakin Genie, which is based on the same AI system, Watson, that won on Jeopardy. How does that fit in?

So we started off with Watson, and we thought it could augment the learning experience for all students by being able to answer questions 24-7, 365 days a year—which, if you’ve got a digital campus, that’s what you need. That was our first foray.

[Then we built our own system] that is actually purpose-built for the university, and it’s interacting with the learning management system and other things around the campus. So it’s like Siri, but for Deakin students.It can tell you, for example, what’s coming up next, where you need to go for your next class, that the room’s being changed, or, “Here are the notes that you might need for your study”—that sort of thing.

There’s a video on your website that portrays a scene of a student cooking dinner in their apartment and the laptop is open, and the student asks Deakin Genie to pause the lecture and add a reminder to their calendar. Is this going to one day move into more of the academic realm and play an active role in teaching?

Absolutely. We really believe that. Twenty-five percent of our students are fully online, and I often say the other 75 percent act like they are.

Does that mean they don’t show up for class?

Yeah, it does, actually. They don’t come to class because I think all students are going to operate this way now. I often use the analogy of banking. I used to walk into a building. Now I’m going to the ATM or I pay my bills on my watch. I think the way we live is the way we want to learn, and that’s the way students want to have it.

We know that our on-campus students are just as interested and engaged in these [digital] things as the fully online students. In fact, maybe even more. A lot of our students live around Melbourne, there’s traffic. They tell us, “Well I have to drive an hour and a half each way just to come and listen to this, so actually, you know what? It’s also digital. I’m going to do it from home.”

That’s good, because it’s accessible. But what we need to be very mindful of is what I just described as social learning. We need to keep them engaged, and make sure they stay engaged, so it doesn’t just become like watching TV.

How much is too much technology, that could possibly replace teaching? Are faculty on your campus concerned about Deakin Genie?

I don’t think so. I get where you’re going with your question about what is the role of a teaching staff member. Will technology take over? I don’t think so, because at the end of the day, if really good learning is happening, and students are getting outcomes, and they’re realizing their life goals, including their career goals, we’re all going to be happy.

I don’t believe the role of the teacher will ever be entirely taken away, because at the end of the day, education is not like banking. It’s a very personal connection between the student and what they’re trying to learn, with their peers, and with the guidance of someone who knows more than they do.

[Audience question] How do you think issues such as privacy, as something like what Facebook’s struggling with, will have an effect on online learning, and in online classrooms in general?

We have a strong policy around not surveilling students, but using their data with their knowledge in order to help them.
We’ve grown up with a generation of people who think they don’t care about privacy, but I think the recent breaches in Facebook show us, at large, as a human society, that we actually do care about it. So I think all institutions will need to be really, really careful, and to make sure we don’t go too far, because none of us likes it when it’s creepy.

I will throw out one challenge, and it’s one that worries me a little bit around the predictive analytics. There is a great temptation—and I’m speaking quite broadly, now—but we have to be careful not to stereotype people. So we often [serve] first-in-family, or low socioeconomic students. You cannot assume that that person is not really, really clever, or not really, really tenacious in their learning habits. Sometimes I think we’ve started using predictive algorithms, and things like that, where it’s heading towards typecasting people.

We all know that the most comfortable, supported, bright, and engaged student can have a life event that all of a sudden means they have to stop going to university. So you can’t assume anything’s going to happen just because of your postcode or the various algorithms that we apply to you. I think we need to be careful.

I was a first-in-family student at university. I did okay. I got in there, I did it, I was fine. So it’s about not presuming. Someone [talked about] “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” I thought that was a really beautiful way to put it.

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