AI in education — The Genie of Deakin University

The path to enlightenment

IBMs Watson system has been somewhat of a go-to-platform for educational AI purposes and is being used in a number of areas. For example, the viral power of the Georgia Tech teacher assistant Jill Watson hasn’t gone unnoticed by many who are passionate about education and educational technology. Jill was brought to the world’s attention by distinguished sources such as The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider among others.

At the Deakin university in Victoria, Australia, staff has been experimenting with the Watson platform for quite some time in purpose to serve their students in a more personalized manner. Since 2015 students have been able to ask the Watson-based Deakin Genie for advice related to a wide spread of topics.


Deakin Genie at your service

New students at the Deakin campus typically have a multitude of questions being asked each year. With a steady stream of inexperienced students joining the university every semester, a lot of time goes into replying to these inquiries that could involve anything about the general student life at the campus. As these queries often consist of similar issues being debated over and over, a self-learning chat bot is a perfect fit for freeing up valuable teacher time and to deliver satisfactory responses. The 50.000 students at the school have 24/7 access to the system, and the questions are pouring in according to personnel.

To get the Genie up and running fast was a priority to Deakin staff. Just like all machine learning platforms, output is increasing in accuracy with increasing amounts of input, so getting the data collection set up is better done sooner than later. The system gets smarter by each posted questions in the same way as a human develops their skills and knowledge-base from a baby stage, so must Watson when applied to a new area.

According to Deakin Vice-Chancellor, Jane den Hollander, there has always been a true need for such a system:

“Students continuously tell us they want access to accurate, immediate and easily understandable information, that they can instantly find themselves. Watson ticks all of these boxes. Watson will fundamentally change how we engage with our broad communities based here in Australia and overseas. We will be able to provide them a single destination to find the information they need, how and when they want it,”

To get Watson ready for some intense responding, a project that included large parts of the school’s staff and students was initiated. Firstly, school staff got together to dig through archives, emails and learning management systems to find all sorts of student questions. Among the total, 2.000 questions were selected and divided between different institutions to provide the answers which were then fed into the system.

With the help of a myriad of students, first tests started. Watson was asked the 2.000 selected questions over and over, with students rating the answers by performance each time, thus continuously improving accuracy. Additionally, official information from the university website and similar resources has also found its way into the artificial brain to further enhance user experience.

By now, the Genie has been on duty at the Deakin campus for almost two years and is helping thousands of students every week, giving answers to various queries and guiding students trough a wide array of processes.

Among other abilities, the Deakin Genie can help students pay for parking at the campus, how to submit assignments, where to enroll and how to navigate to the next class.

Along with the written explanation, many queries are handled using rich media, such as maps, graphs, tables and images to help clarify matters for inquisitive students.

Technological leadership

Deakin university is still young in university terms but is often mentioned as a role model to other schools due to their technological leadership in many areas. During the last years, the university has developed a strong presence among new and upcoming technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, internet of things, virtual and augmented reality. Keeping the university at the forefront is strongly incorporated into the strategy and is a fundamental part in taking the educational system to next level according to Vice-Chancellor den Hollander:

“Being the first university in the world to recruit Watson to help students navigate their way through their university experience keeps Deakin at the forefront of the digital frontier and delight our students and staff.”

Expectations on the Genie for the coming years is high. The system is expected to engage in meaningful conversations and give individual advice in areas related to admissions, tuition and fees, financial assistance, student housing, extracurricular skills development, health and wellness, facilities, job placement, employment preparation and job skills assessment. 
On top of that, more discipline-specific walkthroughs are on the agenda for future updates. Students having trouble grasping mathematics, for example, can ask the Genie for help and then get a detailed walkthrough of the difficult example and then move on to solve similar examples single-handedly.


“I’m not suggesting that the human element will be replaced, but the balance will change. I see a completely different education.”

William Confalonieri is the Chief Digital Officer at Deakin and the driving force behind the Watson-Deakin alliance. He sees big opportunities of using Artificial Intelligence in the educational sector. To open for a more personalized academic support on a large scale to relieve teachers from monotone tasks and to serve students on a personal level is just not possible without this kind of technology, he says. By moving fast in the ever-changing technology, Confalonieri believes Deakin can get a head start in the increasingly competitive digital educational space.

“We are investing heavily in technology because I believe that in the future — and not too distant future — my industry, in particular, is going to be dramatically changed, which is a consequence of a combination of technologies including smart agents, AI, augmented reality, and IoT”, Confalonieri tells CIO Australia.

The development of the Deakin Genie is still a bit hidden in mystery since Confalonieri wants to keep the competitive advantage on his side as long as possible. Only staff and students have access to the system as of today. In March this year, the enterprise version of the software will be released according to an interview with Confalonieri in CIO Australia. The updated version will be both stronger and safer, and hopefully a big step towards a smarter educational system.


Teachers and principals! What do you think? Is this something you would like at your school/university? Please leave a note in the comments section :)


About the author: Hubert.ai is a young edtech company based in Stockholm, Sweden. We are working to disrupt teacher feedback by using AI conversational dialog with every student separately. Feedback is then analyzed and compiled down to a few recommendations on how you as a teacher can improve your skills and methods.

Learn more:
http://www.cio.com.au/article/606928/exclusive-deakin-university-pumps-up-activity-immersive-technology-arena/
http://www.cio.com.au/article/556907/deakin-university-students-get-answers-using-ibm-watson/
http://www.deakin.edu.au/life-at-deakin/why-study-at-deakin/ibm-watson
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/answers-are-elementary-to-deakins-watson-computer/news-story/9fc95931f3576f2f2a01d8f376ec69c4
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK9gakgPDoc