York University and IBM have launched an innovative student support solution that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to provide students with support services designed to improve their university experiences by delivering both academic and personal guidance covering a wide range of topics in real time.
Developed collaboratively by York and IBM, this virtual assistant demonstrates how technology – specifically AI – can be used in an educational setting to enhance the quality of the overall student experience. This is the first time that IBM AI technology has been used in this way at a Canadian university.
York University is continually introducing inventive new forms of experiential education and technology-enhanced learning that students want. The virtual assistant brings this same creativity to student services, so they are more tailored and responsive to individual student needs whenever they arise. More than 100 York students are directly involved in developing this solution. They are helping the virtual assistant to get better and better at guiding students to the right self-service or in-person contact for academic support or counselling in such areas as mental health, campus involvement and career services.
Since starting a pilot phase in January, there have been more than 75,000 student interactions with the virtual assistant. These interactions and over 1,700 feedback comments have been used to train the solution, improving the way it understands student questions and the answers it provides.
“This is a transformative time for learning and York is proud to be collaborating with a global tech industry leader like IBM to connect our students immediately to the right network of people and supports to help them meet their goals,” said Lisa Philipps, York University’s provost and vice-president academic. “Together, with IBM’s powerful AI technology and York’s innovative student services professionals, we are learning how to combine high-quality, in-person services with real-time information that is delivered to students’ personal devices. The unique virtual assistant is a breakthrough for 24-7 student support services and York is leading the way.”
Leveraging IBM’s AI technology, the student support solution relies on augmented intelligence to interact with students, letting them communicate in their own words, in English or French. The virtual assistant uses information about a student’s program of study and year level to respond to questions submitted in a free-form chat window. The more the solution is used, the more it is trained to better understand students’ questions.
“We are seeing a real appetite for transformative innovation in our post-secondary communities right across Canada, and York University is one of the pioneers,” said Colette Lacroix, the national leader for higher education at IBM Canada. “By harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to make interactions personalized and engaging, York and IBM are making significant strides in improving the student experience. York’s commitment to the success of its students is impressive and it’s been a great experience working together.”
Preliminary results of the pilot are showing positive engagement with the students.
“The virtual guide provides assistance in cool and engaging ways with the addition of emojis and interesting facts within the chat,” said Jasmin Itaychany, a student at York University. “It has the potential to solve many problems. One very helpful tool is the fact that it sometimes provides a list of questions a student may want answers to and all they have to do is click on one to reveal a very detailed answer. This guide is especially useful for students who may suffer from anxiety when speaking to someone in person, which will help increase inclusivity and accessibility on campus.”
York and IBM are committed to exploring innovative educational services that personalize learning both inside and outside of the classroom.