The characteristics of a campus digital assistant


As a growing number of schools, colleges and universities start to offer a campus chatbot or a digital assistant to their students, teachers and support teams I thought it would be a good opportunity to describe the key characteristics or traits of these services. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive but I hope that it serves as a useful prompt sheet for colleagues in other campuses.

The characteristics of a campus digital assistant

They behave contextually
If digital assistants are to support every element of the student life cycle they require access to all key datasets within the campus. When this is realised these services can behave with situational context; adapting their behaviour to meet the needs of students, teachers and support teams. For example, a student may ask a digital assistant about the deadline date for a forthcoming assignment. The digital assistant responds with the date and time for the assignment; but more importantly it advises the student about the grade that is required to maintain or improve the student's overall grade average. Situational awareness is critical if these services are to inform the decisions and actions of everyone on the campus.

The digital assistant is a composite of numerous narrow agents that perform discrete tasks on behalf of the campus and its students
The following diagram shows that campus digital assistants are a composite of numerous services or agents that are tasked with performing discrete activities on behalf of students, teachers and support teams. The agents inform the behaviour of the digital assistant and they also inform the behaviour of one another. For example, the events agent will prompt the digital assistant to suggest university open days to students, the library agent will recommend reading lists that are contextualised to the current assignment schedule, the nudge service will advise students about target grades for forthcoming assignments, the student absence agent will take calls from parents and relay absence information to classroom registers and so on and so forth.

The digital assistant is a composite of different agents

Their actions are explainable
As digital assistants mature they will help students, teachers and support teams with all aspects of their studies and work. They will also inform many of the decisions and actions that are taken by everyone on the campus. Since these decisions and actions have a direct bearing on the future of all our students; the decisions and actions of the digital assistant need to be explainable. It's important to note that all the stakeholders in our institutions need to be given the opportunity to shape and direct the behaviour of our campus digital assistants. If these services are designed with care and if the relationship between ourselves and these digital agents is mediated through campus AIED ethics groups then there is an opportunity to design digital assistants whose behaviour is explainable and moderated by the wider education community.

Digital assistants act on behalf of everyone on the campus
The advent of cognitive services and digital assistants marks a significant moment for the education sector on a number of levels. Firstly, digital assistants are cognitive agents that are able to offer on-demand support at a one-to-one level to every student and employee across our campuses. Their agency enables them to behave contextually which means that they can support multiple tasks and activities that we all need support with. Secondly, digital assistants act on behalf of every teacher, every member of the student support team and all campus administrators to support every student at all points on the student life cycle. At any moment in time, the digital assistant may be supporting a student with an enquiry about financial bursaries; in another place the service is nudging a student about a forthcoming assignment deadline and in another instance, the digital assistant is alerting a teacher about the students who may not meet their target grades. The ability to assume multiple roles synchronously is a key trait for all campus digital assistants. And thirdly, the digital assistant removes many of the routine and repetitive tasks from teachers and support teams. With the use of robotic process automation, our digital assistants are learning to support a growing list of simple, narrow and discrete set of tasks; such as reminding students about their exams, informing managers when they are serving as Duty Principal, advising students about the target grade for their next assignment or adapting content on a learning management system. In the near future, our digital assistants will endeavour to fulfil more complex tasks on behalf of everyone such as authoring weekly report cards for every student on the campus, marking student work and offering feedback on their work or handling incoming and outgoing telephone calls with parents and students. The list of tasks and activities that will be undertaken by campus digital assistants will no doubt widen and grow.

Digital assistants are part of an emerging EdTech marketplace in cognitive services
Expect every digital service that supports campus activities to be cognitive. At a simple level, vendors may support an educational institution by establishing a bridge that connects their campus dataset, learning management system, building management system and so on to a suite of cognitive services. These cognitive services will observe each of these discrete services and take action to inform their behaviour through the use of robotic or intelligent process automation. In the future we should expect these services to dissipate; leaving the digital assistant to mediate all tasks and activities on the campus. However, in the short run, the environment could become rather confused. Students and teachers in a typical campus utilise numerous online services. This means that end users could be presented with multiple chatbots or digital assistants; especially if these services are managed by different vendors. If this is the case, a student's interaction with an individual chatbot could be limited to the online service that they are currently engaged with. In the worse case scenario, a student will have to open the institution's learning management system to converse with the LMS chatbot about forthcoming assignments or tutorial topics; and the student will have to engage with the library chatbot or digital assistant to renew book loans. This invariably leads to a fragmented chatbot service. The same holds true for all the services that teachers and support teams use. For further information on this issue please refer to the chatbot proliferation problem.

They have a persona
This may sound trivial when compared with the other characteristics of a campus digital assistant, but when you imagine a world where every young child is presented with a lifelong digital companion whose primary function is to support their learning, having a persona takes meaning. It enables the child to have a degree of empathy with their digital companion. This is crucial if the digital assistant is to be a trusted agent in the child's life. As these services mature it is unlikely that a student will be presented with a different digital assistant as he or she enters a new campus. I can imagine a student's digital assistant being presented with a unique key that enables access to all campus services. A new key is presented as the student progresses from one campus to the next or from one place of training to another. Persona is also important for teachers and support teams on the campus. At Bolton College teachers and support teams regularly refer to Ada, our digital assistant, as an additional member of the team. For example, they routinely ask: "Can Ada do this for me? Can you ask her to do this? Can you teach Ada to do this?"

The characteristics that have been listed in this article are not meant to be exhaustive. They are intended to highlight how campus digital assistants are currently being used in our schools, colleges and universities; and how they will come to be used in the near future. The advent of the campus digital assistant marks a significant moment for the education sector. It stands apart from the networked devices and services that are currently used in our campuses.