by George Nott

CIO50 2018 #26-50: William Confalonieri, Deakin University

Nov 22, 2018
Technology Industry

The tagline for Deakin University’s virtual assistant Genie is ‘here to help you succeed’.

The artificial intelligence, personalised assistant is designed to help students navigate and organise their tertiary experience.

It uses a familiar chat interface and voice recognition coupled with machine learning, which enables it to continually get smarter and more intuitive as more students access the software and build on their conversations.

Genie has a number of features; including a 24/7 question and answer service; the ability to clearly display coursework due dates (in response to text commands like ‘What are my deadlines?’), the day’s timetable, and available learning resources; as well as student tools like assistance with referencing, library loans and holds information and an easy look-up of support staff to connect to.

“Levering an AI engine, Genie analyses and ‘learns’ about students’ preferences, academic progress, interactions with the university environment and learning content,” says William Confalonieri, the university’s chief digital information officer.

“Genie is personalised for each and every student, while remaining fully integrated with the university’s enterprise systems – this gives us an edge over all other smart agents in the market,” Confalonieri, who conceived the idea, adds.

“[It’s] an inventive response to persistent problems among university students, including information overload, disengagement from generic, impersonal teaching and learning methods, and student attrition.”

There are a number of technologies involved in Genie, including IBM Watson cognitive engine which handles 1600 questions a week from students to “learn the ins and outs of life on campus”.

“One of the key objectives in developing Genie was to enhance the way student services are delivered to students. Genie does not simply answer a student’s queries, but rather predicts their needs, prompts with ‘just-in-time’ information, helps with planning and motivation, and automatically undertakes repetitive tasks,” Confalonieri explains.

Following an initial release to students within the Faculty of Business and Law, Genie was rolled out whole of university wide in January this year.

“Deakin University’s main KPI relates to student satisfaction, and while the organisation is already a leader in this domain, Genie is takes student experience and support to a completely new level,” Confalonieri says.

Out of the bottle

Now Genie is out of the bottle, as it were, Confalonieri is facing some new challenges. Due to the virtual assistant’s success – it was a winner of IDG’s Digital Edge 50 award late last year – there is an opportunity to sell the tool externally.

“The major impact was unexpected at the beginning of the journey: opportunities for commercialisation,” Confalonieri says.

Preparing the university to sell innovations coming out of the IT division has been no small feat.

“Months of negotiations and explorations of opportunities and scenarios finally opened the door,” Confalonieri says.

“Another current challenge is the prospect of a division of the IT team, which will soon form a start-up company to commercialise emerging technology innovations. The main challenge in this case is the expanded technical workforce required, in a market so competitive for top resources,” he adds.

To respond to this problem, Confalonieri and his team is exploring the potential of standing up a team in India.

More than technology

As a member of the university’s senior executive, Confalonieri is responsible for delivering Deakin’s strategy to be ‘Australia’s premier university in driving the digital frontier’, with the mandate and influence to make the vision a reality.

Despite the obviously technological angle to that mission, Confalonieri says the technical side is not everything.

“The biggest lesson learnt over so many years was to understand that technology knowledge is only a small part of leading in the technology domain. Leadership involves establishing the right combination of vision, governance, people, behaviors, processes, culture, operational models, and technology,” he says.

“After so many years of efforts in the discipline, this is now so easy to see, it is almost trivial, but it was not evident to me when I started my career with a newly minted computer science degree and all the future ahead. It has been a long journey of constant learning,” Confalonieri adds.