UNSW to open source its Microsoft classroom platform on GitHub

Starting with its artificial intelligence-driven Q&A chat bot called Question.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has announced that it will begin open sourcing its cloud-based classroom platform built on Office Education, and releasing it on GitHub this December, starting with its artificial intelligence-driven chatbot, called Question.

According to Dr David Kellerman, a senior lecturer at UNSW school of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, Question was developed on Microsoft's bot framework to help ensure the thousands of online posts received from students were never missed.

"Question treats every students' question like a service ticket. It connects them with the right people. When the TAs [teacher's assistance] come in and answer those questions, it's logged off, and it's read as a question and answer pair automatically," he said.

Kellerman said over a semester, the Question bot automatically logged 1,000 Q&A pairs categorised by topics, which was then used as a learning tool to train the AI system.

"We automatically write it to an Azure cognitive service Q&A ... It doesn't try to answer questions on its own, it tries to redirect the students into their conversation, reconnecting them back with their peers," he said.

"Sometimes students post photos. How do you get context from the photograph? I started putting QR code on all the learning material and we use vision APIs so the bot is able to read it and say, 'hey I see you're working on question 4.1', then it can pull in relevant information from Azure Blob Storage and redirect students to more valuable learning resources."

See also: Microsoft makes Azure smarter with a flurry of new machine-learning services (TechRepublic)

Question was developed off the back of a pilot that Kellerman launched in 2017. It initially started with Kellerman working with the university's IT team to sync all students into Microsoft Office 365.

"I started using Teams to replace my online student forums. Now we were able to communicate with diagrams, hand-drawn mathematics, pictures, and code snippets. And all the lecture material was going straight into the channels in Teams, everything aggregated together in one place and stored on SharePoint," he said.  

He added the shift onto Microsoft Office 365 meant he could also use Team Live Events to live broadcast his lectures, while allowing students to write comments to ask questions and receive answers in real-time.

When it comes to handing assignments to students, Kellerman said while speaking at Microsoft Innovate in Sydney on Wednesday, that he can give students Word documents that are hosted and shared in real-time on SharePoint.

"I have all the metadata, version history, and this improves the integrity of my assessment," he said.

Kellerman touted the technology now allows him to also make improved predictions about the performance of every student for every exam question, which helps generate personalised study packs for 500 students that are all uploaded to SharePoint.

He said these features have helped improve overall student satisfaction, claiming that four years ago it was only 74% and now it's over 99%.

"AI is allowing me to reach out to people in need … I asked my students, 'Do you feel part of a learning community?' And 100% of them said yes," Kellerman said.

Marking exam papers has also been improved as it's now a more automated process, said Kellerman.

"I actually end up with 24,000 pages of hand drawn engineering calculations and diagrams over the course of the semester. I built a system to scan all of it with my team to digitise everything and turn it into an online assignment.

"Using Azure machine learning, I can train an ML model against the marking rubric to identify key components, diagrammatic solutions … and three seconds later an Azure machine learning can identify all the key points of hand draw engineering diagrams … now when we're marking, we already have AI suggestions in there. We can either click through and confirm or filter out things, like a blank page, a human never has to see that."

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