Senior Writer

College of Southern Nevada deploys AI avatar to better engage students

Oct 10, 20236 mins
Artificial IntelligenceCIO 100Education Industry

The avatar, created in partnership with AI Foundation, provides students of the largely minority, bilingual college with a personalized connection to administrative services, as well as support in need.

Mugunth Vaithylingam stylized
Credit: College of Southern Nevada

Even in IT, chance encounters can have an outsize impact.

For Mugunth Vaithylingam, CIO at the College of Southern Nevada, sitting next to AI Foundation COO Russ Logan on a flight from New York to Las Vegas last October provided just that: a chance meeting that led to a whole new way for the college to engage with and personalize the experience for its students at a time of heightened need. 

Vaithylingam, energized by their conversation, called Logan the next day brimming with ideas and so began work on the design of an innovative avatar of the college president, Dr. Federico Zaragoza, aimed at providing a personalized connection into the college community for its students. The first avatar digitally connected with students from the website to welcome them to the college, answer basic questions, direct them to portal information, and check up on how they were doing emotionally and academically, as well as offer help to students at risk of dropping out.

The timing of this tool in the post-pandemic era met the unique needs of this largely minority, bilingual institution, some of whom were commuting from Los Angeles, most of whom reside on one of three campuses around the greater Las Vegas area, all of whom needed added support to correct course after the chaos and disruption of the pandemic, the CIO says.

The college president is bilingual and his avatar, created by the AI Foundation, gave students a more personalized way of interacting with the college administration on the website supporting the college’s 18,000-strong community.

Currently, the avatar — which was redesigned into a youthful student avatar dubbed ‘Ellie’ at the president’s urging to help students better identify with it — runs on the college’s website but eventually will be made available on mobile devices, the CIO says.

Vaithylingam also intends to expand the scope of services to better meet the emotional needs of students, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds and need more academic and financial aid support services to strengthen student retention and engagement. Wireless service in that region is weak and that poses ongoing challenges for students learning remotely or on campus, he says.

“If you look at our website, it’s not super fancy because we have students with 2G area networks,” Vaithylingam says. “That’s one reason why we wanted to make sure even this avatar has a much lighter click portion of the loading bandwidth.”

Even so, Vaithylingam plans to implement many services as the bandwidth improves, namely integrating the avatar with the college’s CRM system, called greymatter Student Lifecycle CRM, a Microsoft-based system developed by Frequency Foundry.

“This integration of data, such as student grades and assignments due, with the avatar will enable a much more personalized approach,” Vaithylingam says, adding that he aims to deliver important support services — especially if a student’s grades start to drop or attendance is falling.

Anatomy of an avatar

Vaithylingam says he used to operate one of the largest data centers in Nevada but is now close to 100% on Microsoft Azure as of six months ago.

That shift to the cloud isn’t the only thing changing within the CSN community. “The students’ expectations have changed,” Vaithylingam says. “Especially after the pandemic.” CSN students, the CIO notes, are now inclined toward experiences “more like an Amazon check-in and check-out process,” he says. Developing an avatar struck Vaithylingam as a unique way to deliver that. 

The digital avatar, which Vaithylingam credits the creation of entirely to the AI Foundation’s COO and its inspiration to the wisdom of another AI Foundation member, Deepak Chopra, was built on AI.XYZ, an AI platform that combines proprietary research from the AI Foundation, foundation IP, and advanced open-source AI models “to deliver a painless user experience that doesn’t require specialized knowledge,” Logan told, noting that the AI Foundation holds more than six patents related to voice synthesis, visual rendering, and AI cognition related to this specific avatar.

The College of Southern Nevada received a 2023 CIO 100 Award for IT innovation and leadership for its work in partnership with AI Foundation on the avatar.

“The proprietary AI.XYZ platform is built on cutting-edge synthetic face, voice, knowledge, and memory technology that’s trained holistically for your specific use case,” says Logan. “Each key area has its own unique aspects, but collectively, we are utilizing our own deep learning models, large language models, NLU, NLP, ASR, and other AI agents.”

Logan explained the revised ‘Ellie’ avatar was built on the platform’s avatar creation engine, which was then imported into its real-time animated visual scene engine.

“She is connected to our various data sets and systems to allow her to think, speak, and listen to the user speaking to her, emulating a realistic human conversation,” Logan says, noting that ‘she’ speaks English and Spanish using the platform’s real-time voice synthesis engine, which allows the avatar to be flexible in her responses, such as learning a student’s name. ‘Ellie’ is accessed from a website or the mobile web.

The integration of ‘Ellie’ into the college’s CRM will expand personalizing interactions and conversations with the students because it will have access to far more data stored in the CRM.

For example, ‘Ellie’ will be capable of learning whether a student is often marked late for a class and the college can then provide personalized resource for the student’s situation, such as connecting them with tutoring resources if they need more classwork help. “This integration will take ‘Ellie’ to the next level in providing dedicated attention to each student,” Logan says.

CSN’s CIO is confident that this integration with the CRM system will be a game changer. “It will be so much more robust, with the ability to make appointments with advisors and counselors, offering help with financial aid applications and job applications,” Vaithylingam says.

Vaithylingam is also working with LinkedIn and Pathways to help ease the job-hunting process for the college’s students. CSN offers associate degrees, certificate offerings from Microsoft and Cisco, as well as diplomas for skills required for the region, such as casino machine maintenance. CSN, he says, has implemented Microsoft’s Security-as-a-Service and he is planning to develop a Microsoft Learning Center on campus. CSN has two campuses in Las Vegas and one in Henderson, Nevada.

“Right now, I’m just putting this on the website,” Vaithylingam says. “Then it will be pushed to students’ portals. It’s going to be there all the time.”