La Trobe University using artificial intelligence to reduce course dropout rates

The Bachelor of Arts Explorer allows students to shortlist majors and see what careers they can enter if they study a specific course.

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La Trobe University was experiencing a high drop out rate for students accepted into its Bachelor of Arts course before the first semester had even begun.

According to La Trobe CTO Stuart Hildyard, this was mostly due to the confusion around what exactly students could choose as a major for the degree, given arts is so broad.

The Melbourne-based university turned to IBM, using its existing cloud partnership to inject artificial intelligence (AI) and a more "Netflix-type" feel into the daunting task of course selection, to keep more students enrolled.

What resulted was the Bachelor of Arts Explorer.

"Bachelor of Arts is one of the major courses universities offer, and the problem statement In this instance is that our arts course have over 50 majors and arts students, by tradition, know they want to study arts, but they don't know what major they want to do," Hildyard said, presenting at IBM's Think Digital 2020 conference.

"What we found is traditionally the arts students would apply for the course, often they would drop out, or not go through the acceptance process because they just got confused about what to study."

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"What's really exciting is using the IBM Cloud, and some of the services and the AI components behind them, we were able to sort of present a Netflix-type view to the students where they could scroll through and go, 'I want to know about that major', and based on a series of questions, it [pulls] in some of that AI information like, 'Do you like critical thinking? Do you like reading? Are you interested in this?'" he explained.

Hildyard said the platform would return suitable majors, based on a students' selections, and just like in Netflix, the students are able to "love heart" -- shortlist -- a major.

It would then flow through to provide information about what type of careers they could enter with a specific major under their belt.

"Often they do want to know … what their career outcomes are going to be, so we've built that in as well -- in just four weeks we built this," he said.

He said La Trobe has a bigger vision to expand this beyond arts.

"Our big vision is to actually build something out for the university that can lay across all of our key courses and provide similar information," he said.

"The university absolutely has a priority around student acquisition, and traditionally our student load has been declining in our domestic space.

"What we saw with the benefits of a Bachelor of Arts Explorer … the acceptance rate is absolutely higher and tracking higher than it has been any previous year."

La Trobe also turned to IBM for help with implementing a COVID-19 chatbot to help students with questions related to their university experience.

Hildyard said this included a multitude of information from how to navigate online course work through to what happens with their parking permits.

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