Setting-up students for life with the best education possible is a tall task, as is providing industry with the right talent to help it drive the world’s digital economy.
These asks put pressure on universities to go beyond their traditional boundaries of providing academic excellence. Instead, these institutions have to learn themselves how to harness today’s disruptive new technologies so they can enrich the teaching and learning experience and empower ground-breaking research.
Sharda University is one such organisation taking this journey. As its VP of IT, Divesh Kamboj, says, “Education has moved beyond classroom teaching to what I call ‘technology assisted education.’ This means using emerging technologies to counteract things like the diminishing attention span of students and enhance the learning experience. To do this successfully on an ongoing basis requires deep data insight. Today, with Oracle Cloud, our data has a voice that is helping us transform and predict success.”
With almost 20,000 students from more than 80 countries, Sharda University is one of the largest, government-recognised, private universities in North India. It offers more than 200 under- and post-graduate programmes across 13 specialised streams including engineering, business, medicine, law and architecture.
Recognising the changing education landscape, the university wanted to understand: how to improve student satisfaction; what types of learning models work best; what courses are needed to meet industry demand; and how to improve the numbers of students finding work quickly. This meant a constant stream of requests to the university’s IT team to provide data.
As Kamboj explains, “It was a never ending flow of queries coming from almost every department: Student Quality, Registrations, Admissions, Accounts, Housing, Student Welfare and so on. Our highly manual processes and spreadsheets were hard and tedious to maintain. We just couldn’t provide visual and insightful data quickly and easily.”
The IT team looked into options and found Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse and Oracle Analytics Cloud matched its requirements.
Oracle Autonomous Database, is the industry’s first self-driving, self-securing, self-repairing database. It uses ground-breaking machine learning and automation to deploy, optimize, patch and secure itself with no human intervention. It runs on Oracle’s Next Generation Cloud, which gives CIOs a cloud built for mission-critical enterprise workloads and includes high-performance Oracle Exadata Database Machine infrastructure, powered by Intel’s Optane DC Persistent Memory.
Keen to get started using its new data and AI capabilities, the IT team put them to work looking at trends analysis, with some early successes.
“With things changing so quickly, we need predictive insight. Already we’ve made changes around administration, the student experience, and for the management team that have had a positive impact. There was a real wow moment the first time our board realised they could actually play around with the data, then and there, and get it to tell them its story. This just wasn’t possible previously,” continues Kamboj.
In its Admissions Department, the institution can now predict which specializations will fill fastest so it can better plan and allocate classrooms and infrastructure, making its laboratory capacity planning 30-40 percent more accurate as a result.
In the area of student housing, Sharda can now predict when rooms are likely to become vacant, as students move offsite or drop out so they can fill them, with a resulting 20 percent increase in success.
These quick wins have also influenced the university to explore the use of AI to predict dropout ratio of students based on different parameters.
“Twelve months ago I never would have dreamed we would be using AI and get such fast benefits. With the pre-built models we didn’t need much training, so now we can make a huge impact without needing a lot of resource,” adds Kamboj.
The University has been using insights from its huge data pool to improve the end-to-end teaching-learning process, enhancing the students’ learning experience and outcomes.
After a significant modelling exercise to identify whether there was a relationship between an individual faculty’s profile and student performance, Sharda was able to see that communications and mentoring were the defining factors.
“What we saw was with decreasing attention spans, faculty communication has to be more engaging. Mentoring also makes a lot of difference to student performance. Following development programmes around our communications, teaching delivery styles and mentoring there was a 12 percent improvement in our annual student satisfaction ratio.”
Another critical success factor for Sharda is meeting industry requirements; a hard task given that they are changing at an unimaginable pace.
“We want to future-proof our students’ learnings so they are industry ready from day-one. But spotting the new trends and being able to pivot can be hard. New insight is helping us identify new courses we can offer around new disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, IoT, robotics and Blockchain,” explains Kamboj.
Students are also using the new capabilities to analyse results and do predictive modelling.
As Kamboj highlights, “Many of our students want to get hands on with cutting edge technologies. While we had plans for AI courses, we didn’t envisage that it was going to be so easy to use, straight out of the box. We conduct a Tech Day each week where someone from my team collaborates with students to help them to use the new tools. It’s been very cost effective and engaging, requiring very limited manpower. It’s helped drive a 25-30 percent increase in placements ratio and given us a reputation for being an institution focused on disruptive technology.”
The new platform has also had an effect on communities in the surrounding areas. Sharda students and faculty members provide free dentistry to rural school pupils as part of their social responsibility initiative to support the Public Department of Health and Dentistry. They also share information to encourage friends and family toward better oral health and hygiene.
Needing to show success to secure ongoing funding and expand the programme, the team used the autonomous platform to analyse the data. It showed a 20-30 percent decrease in student dental issues over past three years and an 18 percent decrease in the older generations from those areas.
Recognising the power of AI, Sharda has started using Oracle Digital Assistant within the University’s mobile app to assist the institution handle the huge number of enquiries received by its call centre. Taking over from a basic chatbot found on the institution’s website, it is being extended beyond just providing facility providing answers to frequently asked questions to do more. As an example, students wanting to take leave or report issues will be able to use it to log details which will then be passed on to the relevant department.
According to Kamboj, “The AI and natural language understanding (NLU) features make it really engaging, to the extent that students already feel very comfortable interacting with it. The ML means it learns, so you can ask more of it and get better answers in a more natural and conversational way over time. Our intention is to give students all the information they want, when they want – in a way that is very familiar to them – through the messaging tools they’re already using. We’re looking forward to expanding its usage and bringing in voice integration.”
For the IT team itself, getting started with the new Oracle tools was described by Kamboj as “quick, easy and very manageable” even with growing sources and volumes of data.
“We’re a longstanding Oracle customer, with our finances, HR systems and our campus solution systems all powered by Oracle. Once we learned of the benefits of Oracle Autonomous Database and Analytics Cloud, it was natural for us to see how we could incorporate it into our technology roadmap and future-proof our unique education model,” adds Kamboj.
As a start, they were able to take data from 13 key sources – their ERP system, third-party specialist applications, as well as spreadsheet data from market analysis and the strategy team, plus financial analyst data – and load them into the autonomous system.
At the same time, the team is starting creating three to five dashboards a month aligned to the different departments’ requirements. This helps the users themselves, with minimal training and support, to start discovering insights and learning how to slice and dice data and correlate data against different parameters.
“From an IT perspective, as it’s an autonomous system that self-manages patching, updates, security and the like, we can just focus on extracting the maximum business value from the data without having to worry about the data management process. It’s also saved us about 20 percent of the time it previously took, especially around gathering and formatting information,” Kamboj concludes.
“It’s incredible to see how much technology has aided the traditional teaching model in such a short space of time. It has helped students to learn beyond the scope of the classrooms, increased satisfaction ratings and boosted results,” concludes Kamboj.