How CogAbility and the University of Florida are using Watson to build the future of education

By | 5 minute read | October 12, 2020

As they do every fall, 55,000 students descended on the University of Florida this year. But with mask and physical distancing guidelines, alterations to policies on campus gatherings, and new behavioral expectations, operating and attending a university during a pandemic is anything but business as usual. Students have lots of questions about how COVID-19 is impacting their campus experience, and such questions come on top of all the usual queries related to registration, tuition, classes and student life.

While every college administration is struggling to communicate the latest information to students, the University of Florida has turned to a virtual assistant to help provide their student body with information that’s easily accessible and up to date. Prior to rolling out a chatbot solution, the University relied mostly on websites to convey crucial information to their students. But since individual departments manage their web presences differently, students and prospective students lacked a cohesive, centralized way to access information. This also resulted in wasted effort for the University, which was unnecessarily duplicating information across various portals.

“There are a lot of questions that can easily be answered, and we still spend a lot of people-time trying to answer them, and that’s where technology can really come in,” says engineering professor Hans van Oostrom, the leader of the University of Florida’s Digital Literacy Moonshot.

Building an AI platform from scratch is no easy feat, so when Jim Hoskins, a University of Florida alum, approached van Oostrom with a readymade solution, it was an ideal match.

Hoskins is the CEO of CogAbility, an AI engineering firm and IBM business partner. CogAbility’s primary mission is to enable their partners to quickly add AI to their existing technology stack, so they can more readily reap its benefits.

CogAbility has developed a training environment called “CogUniversity,” which is built on top of the CogAbility Acceleration Platform, a middleware layer that orchestrates 20 IBM Cloud services, including Watson Assistant, Discovery and Natural Language Understanding. All kinds of enterprises and institutions can use CogUniversity to build and manage AI entities known as “CogBots” trained to become “AI employees” working at enterprise clients.

“We’ve got a brand-new paradigm for managing AI solutions and collaborating between subject matter experts who know their subject well but nothing about AI, teaming up with AI experts who know how to apply AI in the real world,” Hoskins says.

Meet your new digital teaching assistant

Alli is a student-facing CogBot that can be accessed on university websites and via SMS. Students can ask Alli questions like “What is the deadline for admissions?” or “Where can I find Phelps Lab?” Alli also serves as a digital teacher’s assistant for an AI Fundamentals course this fall. This CogBot is trained by a cross-functional team of faculty and students, who work together to optimize Alli over time.

English professor and Chair of the English Department Sid Dobrin leads a team that helps shape Alli’s look and feel. “We have two students who specialize in digital storytelling overseeing the consistency of the character,” he says. “Is she humorous? Is she off-color? What are her gestures?” Dobrin also supervises six other senior graduate students who, when material is added to Alli’s corpus of knowledge, check to ensure that it meets all of Alli’s style requirements, so students get a consistent experience every time they chat with Alli.

“It’s really a new form of tech and professional writing,” says Dobrin. His department is already thinking about jobs of the future that will be situated at the convergence of STEM and the humanities. “We get phone calls from gaming industry people saying ‘Hey, I can get a computer programmer to make beautiful explosions all day long, but we need people to understand where in the narrative structure the explosion goes,’ so I’ve been pushing for more education focused on digital storytelling and content creation.”

The second CogBot developed for the University is called Cammy. This CogBot helps students, who may or may not have any programming experience, to build different types of machine learning models such as Natural Language Processing, image classification, and linear regression, in the context of a Sea Turtle AI class project for the AI Fundamentals course.

With a brand-new research facility and supercomputer, the University of Florida is aiming to be a global leader for AI in education, and the AI Fundamentals course is ground zero for that aspiration. With Cammy, anyone can develop a working knowledge of AI. Van Oostrom sees this course as being useful for any major.

Building the future of education

Van Oostrom is practical about the ways AI can assist overloaded administrations today. “When a student has a problem, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that they don’t get. Sometimes they didn’t understand the math that they learned three semesters ago, and that’s why they’re now having a problem. I need to go back and make sure they know that before they can understand the next piece. I’m sure we can use technologies to help with that.”

But that doesn’t mean van Oostrom and Dobrin aren’t thinking farther ahead into the future. The CogUniversity partnership points to new modalities where AI becomes the focal point for student life at a university. Under this paradigm, AI is the main channel for communication between a university and its student body, and AI tools extend and individualize the academic experience of each student, creating new opportunities for learning that go beyond what a human teacher could offer, to massive distributed classrooms made up of students all over the world.

Dobrin takes it a step further, envisioning a multi-tiered AI interface that can mediate the way the student engages with textbooks, teachers, and administrators. Content can be updated dynamically based on user behavior, so students will always have access to the latest, best version of their class materials.

While Conversational CogBots are the most capable enterprise virtual agents in the industry, “that’s just the beginning,” Hoskins says. At CogUniversity, CogBots can be trained to drive a car, play a game, make a recommendation, perform linear regression, classify images for clients — anything that modern AI technology can do. In the education industry, these CogBots can be used to teach, and perhaps more importantly, they can be used to revolutionize the fundamentals of what teaching is. CogAbility and University of Florida aren’t just building a new teaching tool, they are in the early stages of redefining what education can be.