Lancaster University launch pioneering chatbot companion for students

Lancaster University student Isaac Grinnell with his Amazon Echo, using Ask L.U.
Lancaster University student Isaac Grinnell with his Amazon Echo, using Ask L.U.

A cutting-edge project from Lancaster University, built on Amazon Web Services, sets new standards in support services for students using voice technology.

With ‘Ask L.U.’, Lancaster is leading the way for UK universities, pioneering its own voice and chatbot interface. It will act as a digital friend and companion for university students, with its own unique personality, allowing them to ask almost any question about their university experience, from student life, and welfare, to academic studies and more.

It delivers a voice interface that interacts with users across a range of subjects – answering questions about timetables, tutors and grades, and allowing them to find out about clubs and societies. Ask L.U. can also have more complex conversations to assist students in tasks such as booking spaces to meet with their peers.

It is delivered via a mobile phone application or using Amazon Echo smart speakers, and using Amazon Web Services (AWS), the ISS team has been able to create and roll out Ask L.U. in just a few months.

The new voice service, designed and built by Lancaster University’s Information Systems Services (ISS), uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) voice, security and serverless technologies, including Amazon Lex and Amazon Alexa, which deliver a natural conversational voice interface making it easy for the students to engage with Ask L.U..

Amazon Cognito provides a secure personalized experience, through simple user sign-up, sign-in, and access control giving students peace of mind that their data is safe. AWS Lambda enables Ask L.U. to quickly scale to support all of its students. Further Amazon Services such as AWS Cloudwatch, AWS Virtual Private Cloud and AWS ElasticSearch are used for logging, data ingress and fuzzy searching. In the future, the University plans to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to identify patterns in the data to make learning easier.

Using AWS, the ISS team has been able to move faster, be more agile and deliver new innovative services to students quickly.

ISS Director Paul Harness said: “With Ask L.U., Lancaster University is at the forefront of voice interfaces for its students.

“Ask L.U. enhances our existing iLancaster mobile app with a range of student-focused voice services and gives us a base on which we can build efficient, voice-driven digital services in the future.”

Project researchers surveyed Lancaster students to gauge which questions they were most likely to ask. From that, they drew up a list of more than 300 queries – split into categories such as learning & teaching and campus activities & social – which could be put to Ask L.U.. It runs via the iLancaster App on mobile phones and tablets, or it can be accessed by asking “Alexa, Ask L.U.” on any Amazon Echo device."

The ISS team worked closely with students to refine the system ahead of the final launch, with Ask L.U. evolving along the way.

The programme also includes special facilities for disabled students, developed in conjunction with the University’s Disability Service, including how to contact a disability advisor, access support and request a deadline extension.

Jess Renyard, one of the students who tested Ask L.U., said: “It’s a faster way of getting information across. I really like how easy it is to use and how quick it is to get information, whether it’s deadlines or what lectures are coming up next, even campus information like opening hours. It’s just really helpful.”

ISS Head of IT Partnering and Innovation Chris Dixon said: “Ask L.U. delivers a whole host of information for students, which they can easily and quickly access using their voice. This modern and innovative way of delivering information fits in perfectly with their packed academic and social lives.

“Students have access to academic information, such as the time of their next lecture, or their latest marks and deadlines. On top of this, there is information on student life, such as where they can find a free computer or washing machine near them, or the opening times of shops and bars.

“We hope Ask L.U. will become a valuable and integral part of student life at Lancaster”

More potential questions and answers will be added to respond to regular demands from students. The hope is that future updates will make it accessible for staff members as well, for purposes such as booking meeting rooms and arranging one-to-one tuition sessions.

“We are excited by the launch of Ask L.U., which sets a new standard in the way universities communicate,” said Paul Grist, Head of Education, EMEA Public Sector, at Amazon Web Services.

“By leveraging the breadth of AWS’s portfolio, Lancaster University has in record time been able to innovate and deliver a new service that fundamentally changes the way they interact with students. Ask L.U. underpins the University’s future digital strategy as it strives to offer a completely new way for students to engage with student life.”

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