Sydney Uni taps AI for new COVID chatbot

The historic university has adopted new technology to help it manage the flood of student inquiries in the wake of COVID-19 crisis

The University of Sydney has developed a chatbot utilising artificial intelligence (AI) to help it handle the raft of COVID-19-related student inquires it’s fielding as a result of the pandemic, which has seen classes move online, facilities closed and students unable to attend university.

The ‘Corona-bot’, as it’s been dubbed, has been tackling between 200 and 400 individual student inquiries every day, with each student typically asking two to three questions. The bot provides the most appropriate answer to the question and, where necessary, directs the student to further information.

The bot was developed in the university’s Automation & Innovation Hub and leverages Microsoft Cognitive Services. The underlying framework for the bot was created in a week, while the content is continuously updated to reflect changing conditions, emerging student concerns and current government advice.

Sydney University Automation and Innovation Hub, general manager, Steve Blunt, praised the project as a great example of the team addressing an emergent challenge quickly, “with a solution that not only assists students, but also informs the university on the dynamically changing student concerns”.

The bot has a dual role - assisting students and also providing valuable insights to the university about the range of student concerns related to COVID-19. The insights are used to help formulate the university’s responses as well as identify any gaps in its assistance for students and the community.

Designed initially as a single question/answer conversational agent, the Corona-Bot responds to a student question with a concise response. The university is now also considering how to develop the agent to handle multi-stage questions, which establish a natural question-and-answer style conversation.

The questions students pose change every day - from asking about courses moving online, to advice about whether they should come to campus or stay home. The university says new questions are emerging now about whether special considerations might be available for students who contract the virus, is they are late to submit assignments or unable to sit exams.

One of the advantages of the chatbot is scalability. And this is particularly helpful in a large, fast moving crisis like the current one. As the pandemic and the ramifications unfolds, new questions and concerns arise. Microsoft Australia education director, Tiffany Wright, said keeping people properly informed is of paramount importance.

“This approach allows students to receive instant answers to their questions and this system is highly scalable so it can meet the demand coming from tens of thousands of students,” she said.

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