Ottawa – Despite specializing in code and becoming Canada’s first fully-online distance university, Athabasca University (AU) knew that it was time to take advantage of machine learning and artificial intelligence with the help of Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Jennifer Schaeffer, vice-president of information technology and the chief information officer at AU, said that over the years of developing the backend software to store information and data, it was time for a change and the plan to use AWS became a reality.

“When you’re one of the folks who started in the online space really early, what happens is under the hood you kind of keep adding and adding to it and the architecture gets a bit fragile and unwieldy,” Schaeffer said. “Back in the 90’s, you didn’t even have companies who had built software that could be sold to you. We created a lot of that ourselves. We coded ourselves and for the time they were awesome, and they were top notch technical solutions, but like any tech solution those have to evolve and adapt or they become brittle and eventually prevent you from doing these upgrades and changes you want to do.”

Schaeffer was one of the keynote speakers at AWS’ annual public sector summit that was hosted for the first time in Ottawa on Oct. 29. It brought in more than 800 IT professionals to understand how the public sector can get into moving its services into the cloud.

AU was founded in 1970 in Alberta and slowly moved into an online-based institution to students who weren’t able to physically access bricks and mortar university or did not have all the qualifications to attend one. In 1995 it became the first university to offer a Canadian accredited online MBA degree.

It now has 850 different courses providing degrees and certificates to more than 40,000 students across the country and internationally.

Schaeffer said that AU’s board approved to go through a digital transformation in December 2017, which was followed by a new five-year plan called RISE. That plan was approved by the board earlier this year.

She said that AU decided to explore what AWS could do for their digital transformation plan and added that after research realized that AWS “moves far beyond just the lift and shift into the cloud.”

“[It] now includes creating a data lake and a learning platform of opportunities in which the professors and students can co-experiment in digital learning itself,” Schaeffer said.

With the decision to move part of AU’s backend to AWS’ cloud, Schaeffer said it meant “we have deeper security, we have better reliability, especially in our rural communities.”

Schaeffer added that AWS works well with the seven areas of focus that AU has in terms of its digital transformation plan.

That includes: moving the current learning system to the AWS cloud; reinventing and implementing robust security; augmenting, deconstructing and reconstructing 850 online courses using AWS Sumarian to integrate virtual reality and augmented reality, creating hands-on learning experiences; using AWS machine learning and AI to the learner’s interaction; creating R&D by using AWS; creating personalized learning pathways for students aged 14 to 99 and above; and all of this resulting in the learning platform is a part of the student for the rest of their lives by creating an AU augmented intelligence learning partner.

Scheffer explained that an example of using AI and machine learning would be running all 850 courses through the AWS machine learning software and deconstructing and reconstructing them to cater to the needs of students.

She said that the software can break down lessons by word and key search results, so if a student only wants to learn one very specific subject without having to do the entire course, they are able to search that keyword and only watch the lectors pertaining to that subject.

She said this was a transformational plan that is still being executed but was an example of where the university was trying to go with their digital transformation.

Schaeffer also noted that using AWS worked with their plan because it is “agnostic” if AU decided to bring other vendors or partners into the mix.

“Our work productivity suite is Office 365, that’s powered by Microsoft and by Microsoft Azure, but that doesn’t interfere with our ability to do [other things],” she said.

She added that it was important to their university to work with a partner that was open-minded and allowed them to work with other partners.