In partnership with Microsoft

The University of Sydney has used Microsoft cognitive services to build an AI-infused bot in double-quick time that responds to student enquiries about COVID-19 and provides instant answers to many of their questions.

The bot has tackled between 200 and 400 individual student inquiries daily, 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.

Dubbed the Corona-Bot, the online agent also provides invaluable insight to the university about the issues that most concern students about COVID-19. This is being used to help formulate the university’s responses and identify any gaps in its assistance for students and community.

While the underlying framework for the bot was created in a week, the response content is continuously updated to reflect changing conditions, emerging student concerns and current government advice.

The questions students pose change day by day – for example early on students were asking whether courses would be offered online, then whether they should come to campus or stay home. New questions are emerging now such as to what special considerations might be available for students who contract the virus, leaving them late with assignments or unable to sit exams.

David Goad, a lecturer in the University’s Business School and Chief Solution Architect for the Automation & Innovation Hub, said: “We worked with Microsoft to spin up a trial, very quickly to test the tool out. And in less than a week we pushed it into production and onto our main COVID website.”

Steve Blunt, General Manager at the Automation & Innovation Hub, said: “This project was 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”.

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

According to Tiffany Wright, Education Director, Microsoft Australia: “One of the fundamental challenges that the COVID-19 crisis is posing is how to ensure people are fully and properly informed. The approach that the University of Sydney has taken 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.

“At the same time the analytics about the questions asked provide the university with a clear understanding about which issues are most concerning students, allowing rapid response.”

Mr Blunt said that the University of Sydney would be happy to speak to other universities about how it had developed and deployed the bot and can be reached via email ([email protected]).

Besides the Corona-Bot, the university’s Automation & Innovation Hub has focused on robotic process automation, a series of conversational agents and a range of artificial intelligence projects mostly focusing on machine vision and natural language processing.



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