Lancaster University powers its online services with Alexa
Imagine this scenario: two people are on a date, and they each bring something else along – their phones. Society is beginning to tolerate, and even accept, the influence of digital technology into our worlds. But voice technology may have people looking away from their phones and talking to each other (and to Amazon Alexa).
Lancaster University is one of the first UK universities to offer a voice and chatbot interface, which covers a wide range of interactions relating to student life, welfare, academic studies, and more.
Experimenting with voice technology on campus
Lancaster University wanted to be on the cutting-edge of voice technology, augmenting our portal and mobile offerings to save students time at our university. So we started experimenting. First, we created internal prototypes to help us understand and show what was possible. From elf-themed cooking ordering using the bot frameworks to a bin and bus information bot with AWS at its core, we discovered voice technology could offer a lot to our students.
We developed a cross-discipline, multi-skilled team including students, our development team, creative writers, and the AWS team. Four months into our development, and we have been able to deliver an expansive set of features within a short time period. The AWS Cloud gave us the agility that we needed.
Using Amazon Cognito, we were able to tie into our identity provider on premises. Additionally, we use Amazon Lex and Alexa to help understand the students and what they are trying to say. We’ve also used serverless computing with Amazon Lambda to fulfil the voice requests. We then tied that into our on-premises architecture and infrastructure to deliver the data to the end user when they request something using voice. Without that unique combination of services, we would not have been able to deliver this project in such a short period.
The Ask LU Alexa skill acts as a “digital friend” and companion to the student, answering questions, providing feedback and advice. It is able to answer simple questions as well as deal with more complex conversations to assist the student in navigating their academic journey.
Designed to have a human-like personality and powered by AWS, The Ask LU Alexa skill is embedded in the University’s mobile app and web portal. It allows students to ask almost any question about their university experience and covers topics as diverse as study skills, welfare problems, social life and academic progression. Students can already ask Alexa the below questions:
- Where should I be, who is teaching me, where is that?
- What do I need to hand in, when is that, what is that?
- What did I get in this subject, how am I doing overall?
- What books do I have out, when is that due back?
- What support does the university give?
- What does <this> term mean?
- What time is this outlet open?
- What is happening on campus?
- What’s in the news?
- What laundrette machines are free near me?
- What PCs are free near me?
- What societies am I a member of?
- Tell me about <this> society?
Student feedback – and next steps
This project lays the foundation for wider work in delivering digital services to staff, and we are looking forward to making further improvements and expanding this service. Having a digital platform that allows the end user to naturally communicate to request digital service seems to be a no-brainer.
Going forward, student analytics is one of the things that we are interested in exploring using AI and ML. Identifying patterns in the data, we could recognize if students are struggling and intervene early to make their learning more successful.
Lancaster University’s voice project will become a fundamental portion of a student’s academic and social life at Lancaster. Providing services through a conversational platform increases the accessibility of our digital services and thus, will improve the student experience at Lancaster.