Opportunities for virtual assistants and artificial intelligence to reduce administrative burden and enhance support for disabled students. A report from the ADDAPT project

Coughlan, Tim; Iniesto, Francisco; Mote, Kellie and Lister, Kate (2021). Opportunities for virtual assistants and artificial intelligence to reduce administrative burden and enhance support for disabled students. A report from the ADDAPT project. The Open University and Jisc, Milton Keynes.


This report highlights and explores the possibilities for virtual assistants and related Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to improve student support. It particularly focuses on how this could be achieved to improve the experiences of disabled students, who are recognised as encountering more barriers and administrative burden to study. With careful design, these technologies can:
• engage students in dialogue, gather information about their needs, build a profile of them and their requirements, and provide guidance and suggestions
• be designed with staff and students, in order that they address known challenges and barriers
• reduce bottlenecks of routine basic tasks, while providing an always available, useful service
• offer an alternative to forms, can support multiple means of communicating, such as through text, speech or assistive technologies
• Help each student in a flexible and personal way which is still directed and monitored by staff.
Administrative processes impact on disabled student wellbeing and success (Coughlan & Lister, 2018), and the excessive administrative burden placed on disabled students is now recognised as a major issue for the HE sector (Policy Connect 2020, pg. 32-41). To address this, virtual assistants can integrate with current support processes and be part of wider transformation of these. However, solutions must also recognise the diversity of institutions.
This report summarises work by The Open University and Jisc to explore how institutions support disabled students and how future visions for this could include virtual assistants and AI. We ran workshops with four institutions and held discussions with a wider set of representatives from further institutions and sector bodies. In the workshops we introduced the example of Taylor and then explored key elements in using virtual assistants for disability support. We included stakeholders from student support, technology, inclusion teaching and management.
Key findings include that:
• Staff perceive a strong need to change from current processes, which are arduous, fragmented and challenging for students. In the future, these processes should become more streamlined and efficient, and to be more accessible, empowering and friendly to students.
• Disclosure and support processes vary across institutions in some areas, such as requirements to evidence disabilities, and use of personal support plans and profiles. However there are common challenges to address such as students disclosing at any point in their journey, and the need for multiple staff to have awareness and work together to achieve effective support.
• Enthusiasm is high and there is understanding that investment in these technologies could lead to significant improvements. However there is uncertainty about institutional capacities to innovate in this space and concern for the challenges of integrating new technologies with current systems.

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