The University of Pretoria (UP) stands among the top universities in Africa. It is home to one of Africa’s leading Master of Business Administration (MBA) programmes and is internationally acclaimed for producing socially impactful research into the world’s most pressing issues. In addition to providing the highest quality of academic teaching and learning to students tackling the opportunity of driving inclusivity from both rural and urban areas, UP is also committed to helping them leave university as confident, well-rounded and responsible citizens fully prepared for the wider world. UP considers itself more than a university – it is a way of life that is underpinned by striving for excellence, giving back to society, and living an ethical, caring life.
The Student Counselling Unit (SCU) plays a pivotal role in the realisation of this approach. SCU offers the university’s 50,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students support resources to optimize studying, make the best career choices and better manage their well-being.
University students are particularly vulnerable to mental health struggles as they're often living away from home for the first time, navigating new social groups, and having to study independently. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this, and more students than ever before are disclosing mental health illnesses.
SCU’s services, which include cognitive training, academic help, individual consultations, workshops, and webinars, are used by 16,000 students each year. Seeing first-hand the positive impact its services have on students, especially as lockdowns were put into place, SCU wanted to make them available to more students, 24 hours a day. The department turned to Dr Wimpie Beeken, Senior IT Project Manager in the ICT Capability Development Management team, for help.
As a university, UP has long been at the forefront of using innovative technology to deliver a better student experience. Initiatives include the trail-blazing UP Mobile App, a convenient way for students, staff and alumni to access a comprehensive range of university info, data and services, as well as the library assistant robot, known as Libby, built with Google technologies.
Many of the university’s exciting digital initiatives have benefited from the guidance of Dr Beeken. With a team of 350 people, Dr. Beeken is a passionate advocate about how technology is reshaping the future of education.
“Our team develops projects across all aspects of university life to aid faculty and students,” he explains. “It’s incredibly exciting to lead these types of initiatives. We get to explore and use the latest technologies and apply them in a way that has real impact on the lives of students,” he enthuses.
With the help of Google Premier Partner DotModus, Dr. Beeken and his team built a first-of-its-kind SCU chatbot (SCU-B), known as Scooby. Students can express their needs, concerns, or questions using voice or text commands and SCU-B responds by suggesting self-help topics and resources. The students can build personalized toolkits using text, video and audio files that they can use to identify stress, deploy calming techniques and find help and support. SCU-B gives 24-hour access to free, preventative mental health resources to supplement traditional one-on-one counselling services. And in the event of a crisis, SCU-B can facilitate getting face-to-face help.
“The initial development revolves around three main branches: mood, stress and lifestyle,” says Dr Linda Blokland, Acting Head of Department: Student Counselling Unit. “Students can access the chatbot through the student portal on their electronic devices, and register using their student credentials. They can also use the chatbot anonymously. Either way, their use will be confidential and their identities will always be protected. If they choose to use their student credentials, they can save material to a toolkit and return at any stage to review what they have saved.”
Describing the university as a “Google IT house” (it has used the Google Cloud Platform and Google Workspace for many years), Dr. Beeken says powering the bot on the Google Cloud was a given. Libby, the university’s other student-facing bot was also built with Google technologies, so Dr. Beeken was keen to take advantage of the integration possibilities. Choosing Google also enabled the UP and DotModus teams to take advantage of a range of sophisticated, artificial intelligence-based Google tools when building the bot.
For example, SCU-B uses Dialogflow, a natural language understanding platform used to build conversational applications. Dialogflow recognizes intent and context, allowing the students to have a realistic conversational experience with SCU-B, and enabling the bot to direct the students to relevant and useful resources.
As with all chatbots, SCU-B uses artificial intelligence to develop and grow. It can take new example sentences, consider them and learn them. The more students use it, the smarter SCU-B will be. The UP team can also make content changes or add content without disruption.
Matt Chittenden, Sales Director at DotModus says: “When building any sort of service, we’re constantly thinking about not just the immediate implementation, but what the future holds. That’s why Google is such a great platform. It ensures that everything we build can scale, can grow and can continually meet the needs of UP’s student population.”
By working closely with Digicloud Africa, Google’s enablement partner in Africa, DotModus gains access to the best resources to help its customers maximize the potential of services from Google. For example, SCU-B uses Google Kubernetes Engine, Cloud SQL, Google App Engine and Cloud Scheduler.
SCU-B also takes advantage of in-browser text-to-speech and speech-to-text functionality. By using this technology already built into mobile phones, the team at DotModus were able to keep the overhead mobile Internet data use (and therefore the cost) to a minimum.
“Inequalities in access to higher education in South Africa continue to be a challenge,” explained Blu Kukard, Account Manager at Dotmodus. “For example, many students from rural or underprivileged areas cannot afford mobile data. That’s why we were so focused on ensuring SCU-B was as cheap as possible for students to use.”
The SCU and Dotmodus teams worked together to design the messages SCU-B shows, working hard to ensure they achieved the right tone of voice for the chatbot. With equitable access in mind, there was also a collaborative effort with the Disability Unit at UP to ensure that images have the correct alternative text and that students using screen readers were able to use SCU-B.
The project moved from concept to reality in a matter of months. “DotModus gave us carte blanche. Their never-say-no attitude allowed us to build every requirement of our idea and their openness of engagement meant that every team member and stakeholder was on board and involved from day one,” says Dr. Beeken.
Early responses from the student population have been positive. Launched during the pandemic, when many students were experiencing difficulties in adjusting academically and feeling socially isolated, the initial uptake of the service was fast, and has continued to grow steadily since.
The convenience of using technology that’s already in the students’ pockets has proven to be a great draw. “SCU-B enables us to share resources in a manner that the students are comfortable with, through their mobile phone,” says Dr. Beeken. “They can access the help they need, whenever they need it from wherever they may be.”
The anonymized usage reports from the bot are also providing useful insights to SCU. In addition to providing regular snapshots into the overall well-being of the student population at any given time, they reveal which resources are using being used most. By pulling together different streams of data, SCU is starting to intelligently predict students’ needs (for example when exams are looming) and proactively provide guides and tools to help.
Unsurprisingly, the ambitious Dr. Beeken already has plans to expand SCU-B’s services. UP intends to add a third bot, creating an ecosystem in which bots support students across a range of services, while keeping data and information private and secure. “Ultimately we want to join all the bots together so they share knowledge and data. This approach will result in a more consistent experience to students when searching for and discovering information, and the conversational experience will keep getting richer too,” says Dr Beeken.