BETT 2020

2020. A year where many of us thought cars would hover overhead and robots and artificial intelligence would reign supreme. Well, we were half right as many of us now rely on Alexa or Siri et al. to organise our daily lives! We sent Steve Ganfield sadly not by hover car but via good old road and rail to BETT ‘the world’s biggest education event’ to see what 2020 has in store for us here at Kent and the wider higher education sector as a whole.


Image of the front of the ExCeL centre in London
BETT 2020 let’s do this

Yes, it’s been cold, foggy and downright miserable of late but I made it to the ExCeL centre eager to sample this year’s offerings. What I love about this event is that it presents both the opportunity to crawl over the latest personal, classroom and online-based tech and attend presentations from colleagues from around the sector sharing their practice. During my time wandering the vast halls here at ExCeL a few themes have really struck a chord with me this year. In part one of my BETT show report, I take a closer look at the use and potential impact that AI can have on the student journey.

Harnessing the power of AI in HE

AI (artificial intelligence) is continuing to permeate many facets of the University lifecycle and this was reflected by the sheer number of talks and seminars on the subject. However, the usage that really got my attention was the potential to address many of the frequently asked student queries both lecturers and professional service staff receive and the ability to provide personalised feedback to individual students.

The first session I attended was a shining example of this as Aftab Hussain (Bolton College) introduced  their campus digital assistant Ada. A system which harnesses use of chatbot technology with access to institutional datasets to support both staff and students by providing the opportunity to ‘Ask Ada’ on topics ranging from the various campus services but also to receive personalised feedback regarding teaching, learning and assessment. Over time the system uses machine learning and process automation in order to continue to improve the level of support it offers to everyone on campus. A particular benefit of the system that was highlighted was that students with autism much preferred ‘Asking Ada’ if they had a query rather than asking tutors or peers.

Image of silver robot
AI, robotics and machine learning took centre stage

Taking a slightly different approach, London South Bank University (LSBU) has been working with Amazon web services to explore opportunities to deliver general campus information and personalised content to students via Alexa. Given that Alexa is now available via its own family of products, free to download apps and even via your car and TV student access to campus information such as a student’s assignment deadlines and timetable using technology they are already familiar has the potential to cater the needs of the more diverse student body which now includes campus-based, non-traditional and online learners. Add Alexa’s capacity for serving up information to students whose first language is not English in their mother tongue and all the bases appear to be covered! With plans to take things to the next level by ‘personifying’ the voice of ‘Ellie’ through the creation of an avatar, LSBU hope to create an identifiable companion to accompany and aid students during their higher education experience.

Obviously, there are many ethical issues surrounding the use of AI including privacy, data security, transparency and accountability but it presents administrators with data they can act upon if necessary (interventions), while also giving students the opportunity to access  personalised information as and when they need it 24/7 via a technology they are increasingly familiar with. Definitely food for thought as we continue to develop and enhance our communication mechanisms here at Kent.

In part 2 of his BETT show report, and with Microsoft 365 arriving imminently at Kent, Steve looks at how Microsoft teams has the potential to really enhance student and researcher collaboration.


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