Grant MacEwan College develops virtual agent

Grant MacEwan College is putting a new face on its student portal this fall. She doesn’t have a name yet, but will be available 24×7 to point students with registration questions in the right direction.

The Edmonton college,

the largest in the province, is rolling out CodeBaby Corp.’s “virtual agent” software for its Web site and intranet. CodeBaby specializes in providing human but animated characters that can help visitors navigate Web sites or be used as training aids for corporate clients.

MacEwan’s virtual agent will be used primarily to augment the online registration process for more than 40,000 students and 3,700 staff and faculty. The idea is to deal with questions and common problems quickly, said David Beharry, a spokesperson for the college, and minimize the amount of time students need to spend registering for courses.

“There will be a learning curve, but we’ve . . . looked at the software package and looked at examples of how it can be utilized,” said Beharry. “I think right off the bat there might be a bit of ‘What’s this . . . ?’ but as soon as they move through the process, the majority of people will understand that this is something that facilitates their registration.”

MacEwan has opted for a female virtual agent since most people are more comfortable dealing with a female presence in that context, said Beharry.

Virtual agents that CodeBaby has designed for other clients include “Gina,” a virtual agent that works with the Government of Alberta as a training tool for its financial personnel. McEwan’s agent may never actually be christened, said Beharry, but will be a young woman and voiced by someone of college age. “We’ve found that it’s something that people are more open to. . . . it will be something they can relate to.”

CodeBaby is working with MacEwan to develop the specific look of the character.

“MacEwan is looking towards us to determine what’s worked in the past and what they should do,” said CodeBaby CEO Shaheel Hooda. “They’ve got some thoughts already in mind in terms of what the character will look like and we’re helping them out in terms of the ramifications of all that.”

The college aims to make her “more MacEwan,” said Beharry. “We can adapt the hair colour, the skin tone, etc.”

The college considered designing a character with a youthful vernacular, but eventually opted for a “plain English” version.

“A large number of our students are 18, 19, 20, but we also have a fair amount of student population that is 25, 27, 30 or 31. We have to make sure that we’re not really pigeon-holing the character,” said Beharry.

The virtual agent will primarily be used to aid the student registration process, but her duties may be extended to handle queries about other resources like counseling services. The solution will go into test mode in the coming weeks and will be ready well in advance of September, said Beharry.

He said the expects “heavy usage” of the service, particularly in its early phase. Curiosity will be a big motivator for a lot of students. “It’s something different, it’s something unique. . . people will want to find out how this service can really assist them. They’ll play with it a little while to find out what services are actually provided.”

MacEwan is the first major education institution client for CodeBaby, but Hooda anticipates it could be the first of many. The ability to deal with a large student body could also be a selling point to attract more corporate clients, he added. Earlier this year CodeBaby signed a deal with Bell Canada to use a virtual agent with its Sympatico Internet service.

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