The Artificial Intelligence Pursuit that Led to the Open Source Data Model for Higher Education

One of the benefits of working with cutting edge technology is the opportunity for innovation, which inspires ideas that can iterate over time and become easier to implement as the technology improves. This is the case with RENEE, Campus Management’s artificial intelligent chat bot. Our first ideas around RENEE were inspired by our ability, within CampusNexus CRM, to simulate a human reaching out to students and engaging with them throughout the semester. By using text messaging as the platform for communication, we created the virtual advisor, RENEE, to engage with students in order to ensure that they knew what important milestones were approaching. We also wanted to gather micro-survey information from students about how they were doing or feeling through each academic period. That was the original pitch for RENEE back in 2015.

Soon thereafter, Microsoft released the BOT framework, a set of artificial intelligent services, cognitive services, that allows developers to create experiences using natural language as the input to provide answers to questions or perform basic tasks on behalf of the user. This expanded what we were able to conceptualize about the possibilities for RENEE. We imagined RENEE could be an artificial intelligent agent that would understand questions that students had and provide answers and learn about the different ways those questions were asked over time.

The challenge that we still faced was impact. What we wanted to do was build something for the larger US Higher Education market, but not just within the product customer base of CampusNexus CRM or CampusNexus Student. We knew we had to train our AI to understand the vernacular of college and university students. That required us to build a data model to start training RENEE.

In 2017, Campus Management and Microsoft set off on a project to rethink the way that higher education institutions interact with people across their entire constituent and organizational landscape. What Campus Management brought to the table was a wealth of experience and customers who were using CRM as a way to market to, recruit, admit and retain students. What Microsoft brought to the table was a vision for a common data model that plugged in to the existing Microsoft Office 365 business application base in what is now known as the power platform and the common data service. This platform is what we needed to change the way higher education institutions do business.

The final piece to the puzzle came when we realized the need to give the language of higher education to everyone as part of the common data model. This was announced at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference 2018 by way of the Higher Education Accelerator, an open source data model that enables any developer or partner in the Microsoft ecosystem to integrate their solutions with the Microsoft Dynamics 365 platform.  Here we are at the beginning of 2019 with the ability to provide every college or university with an Office 365 subscription and the ability to take advantage of an artificial intelligent bot that will ease the burden on advisors, help retain students and provide answers to questions when no one is available to help.

Listen to the Campus Management podcast, How AI Helps Grow the Employability of Students, to learn more about how institutions can use artificial intelligence to increase student success.

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