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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

How Lancaster University’s innovation team built a voice service and chatbot for students

When Paul Harness took up the Information Systems Services (ISS) Director role at Lancaster University several years ago, he was tasked with taking IT to the next level.

What he found was that the university had already invested wisely in its infrastructure, and so his mission was to move the IT from being “good” to “great”. The idea of digital transformation was just beginning to gain traction, and the university reacted swiftly by developing its own digital strategy for the university, called Digital Lancaster.

“The idea was to get the university thinking and acting more digitally and as part of that we established a small innovation team. This would be to encourage employees that if you’re not innovating then you’re not going to push the boundaries of what you’re going to achieve,” he says.

The innovation team regularly run events and competitions internally, as well as engaging with external bodies and encouraging different departments to innovate. In addition, the IT team and innovation team worked together to see how voice technology could help students to find out answers to complete tasks more efficiently.

“One of my colleagues did a talk at a higher education conference and we demonstrated some of the things we had already done and there was a guy from Amazon Web Services (AWS) in the room who approached us afterwards and asked who was helping to deliver this, and at this time it was just an internal project, but this led into what is now known as the Ask L.U. project,” says Harness.

The new voice service, has been designed and built by Lancaster University’s ISS team, uses AWS voice, security and serverless technologies, including Amazon Lex, Alexa, and Cognito.

Harness says that the university was keen to explore the use of voice as his team felt it was something students would engage with – despite there not being a lot of actual evidence that this was the case.

Three quarters of the innovation team are students who are either developers, designers or in other roles, and one of the first parts of putting together the project was sending out a survey to 3000 students to see what they would like to see in a voice product.

“What came out of that is students wanted to be able to ask a voice assistant about academic things like when is their next class, when is their assignment due in, as well as things about campus such as when shops and bars were open, particularly at quieter times of the year,” says Harness.

Students were also keen to find out details about one of the several different societies the university has, while the ISS team was keen to build in an application around helping disabled students.

“There’s a nice case study of how a blind student is using Alexa – it’s much easier to ask about deadlines,” he says.

The approach AWS took with Lancaster University was also interesting.

“They talked to us about their development approach and thinking big, and they suggested starting with a press release, and then working back to then think about how you deliver that – so as part of a business case, we drafted a press release and then worked to deliver that,” he says.

Development for the project started in November, and the team has used an agile development approach with sprints every three weeks. Sixty students are testing it as part of the pilot project, and they’ve all been given an Amazon Echo Dot each in order to feed back on the features they’ve liked and what needs improving.

Ask L.U. officially launched on 5 March and although there isn’t yet detailed information on how much it has been used by students, Harness says that usage has increased significantly and there will then be a second phase of the project where further features will be added.

“Often students pick up an assignment but don’t look at the feedback, and we’re looking at ways where we can use Ask L.U. to provide the feedback through the academic tutor’s voice, possibly telling the student their mark and then asking if they would like to listen to the feedback on it,” says Harness.

The Ask L.U. features are available through a mobile app or through Alexa as a skill. As well as finding out about student societies and shop opening times, the team also has a project to include a digital way-finding feature, while other features that are either on the horizon or are already part of the app include the ability to know about bin collection times, bus timings, washing machine availability, and computer availability in the library. Some conversations will be more detailed; when a student asks if they can book a room in the library, Ask L.U. will respond by asking how many people, when, and what kind of room.

The hope is that Ask L.U. becomes a part of every day student life at Lancaster, and will be one of the innovation success stories that Harness and his team can build on in the years to come.