Creating a rapid response virtual assistant to improve student engagement

Saving more than 300 hours of student query processing time

OniGroup results

With Google Cloud Oni:

  • Delivers a smooth mobile experience for a successful virtual orientation
  • Automates routine tasks such as FAQs and call center queries to save administrative time
  • Improves navigation on campus with accurate information


About Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

A research-intensive public university, NTU Singapore has 33,000 students. Ranked among the world’s top universities by QS, NTU has also been named the world’s top young university for the past seven years.

Industries: Education
Location: Singapore

Products: Google Cloud; Cloud IAM; Contact Centre AI, Diagflow Enterprise Edition

NTU creates a multipurpose virtual assistant using Dialogflow Mega Agent on Google Cloud to improve student engagement for its virtual orientation and increase operational efficiency with automated processes.

August 2020 marked the start of the academic year for students at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Singapore (NTU Singapore). When new students arrive on campus, they often have questions about campus life, from planning their curriculum to joining student clubs. In previous years, student volunteers shared helpful information with newcomers during orientation. But all this changed in 2020, as NTU had to move its student orientation online to minimize in-person interactions because of COVID-19.

The university decided to use a virtual assistant chatbot as a solution to onboard its 6,000 freshmen. Based on research by the Infocomm Media Development Authority in Singapore, all youth between the ages of 15 and 24 own smartphones. For this reason, NTU decided to focus on mobile as the main channel to provide an immersive orientation experience. With Lyon being the name of the university's mascot, NTU launched Ask Lyon, a virtual assistant on its web and mobile apps, to provide new students with the right resources, at any time, from anywhere.

"Within minutes of configuring a Dialogflow agent, the virtual assistant delivered accurate responses that we couldn’t achieve with another prototype virtual assistant. That gave us the confidence that Google Cloud is the right platform. Even our students found it easy to train and deploy the virtual assistant without any programming background.”  —Ng Kee Haur, Team Lead, Web and Mobile, NTU

Ask Lyon, powered by Dialogflow, which is part of Contact Center AI on Google Cloud, is the brainchild of a diverse project team of staff and students. Acting like a mega call center agent, the virtual assistant uses Mega agents to handle different scenarios—from student orientation to queries on administrative matters—by responding to user requests in text format with the relevant information.

Project Lyon now provides NTU’s 30,000 students with rapid access to a myriad of related information to assist freshmen and undergraduates across the start of their journey with NTU. Project Lyon has also improved organizational productivity in reducing the service center queues by 25% and phone call inquiries by 62%. This has enabled staff resources that would have traditionally been required for repetitive student inquiries to provide services that are more sensitive and valuable to students.

“A partner needs to be bold, agile, and open to possibilities. In addition to technical support, Google Cloud and OniGroup helped us gain early access to the new Dialogflow feature, Mega Agent, that meets our current and future needs without investing in costly infrastructure.” —Ng Kee Haur, Team Lead, Web and Mobile, NTU

Expanding digital capabilities through collaboration

Before NTU created Ask Lyon, the team built a virtual assistant with in-house resources but was not satisfied with the result because it could not provide optimized and useful answers to the user’s questions. In comparison, Dialogflow, which powers Ask Lyon, uses natural language processing (NLP) technology to understand what users are asking and provide a relevant response. With the help of Google Cloud partner OniGroup and input from students, Ask Lyon went from idea to launch in three short months.

“Within minutes of configuring a Dialogflow agent, the virtual assistant delivered accurate responses that we couldn’t achieve with our prototype virtual assistant,” says Ng Kee Haur, Senior Assistant Director, Centre for IT Services at NTU. “That gave us the confidence that Google Cloud is the right platform. Even our communications students found it easy to train and deploy the virtual assistant without any programming background.”

Launched in August 2020, Ask Lyon was well received by NTU freshmen. Students interacted with the virtual assistant during the first month of orientation in more than 10,000 unique chat sessions to ask questions such as “How do I register for courses?” and “How do I apply for student loans?” By providing automated responses, the virtual assistant saves the student officers minutes to answer each question, in person or over the phone. The virtual assistant escalates questions that it can’t answer to conventional channels such as phone or email for follow-up.

“A partner needs to be bold, agile, and open to possibilities,” says Ng Kee Haur, Senior Assistant Director and Team Lead, Web and Mobile at NTU. “In addition to technical support, Google Cloud and OniGroup helped us gain early access to the new Mega Agent feature to build a virtual assistant that meets our current and future needs without investing in costly infrastructure.”

Darragh Murphy, Managing Director at OniGroup, says, "Our expertise and strategic consulting in working with passionate NTU staff and students demonstrated a strong cohesive student-centered focus, and we look forward to the continued success in working even closer across the next iterations of Project Lyon."

Improving student interaction with human experiences

A successful virtual assistant requires both programming and human intelligence. To create a virtual assistant that students love to use, NTU enlisted students from various backgrounds—business, computer science, communications, and linguistics undergraduates—to improve the conversation experience. These students provided training data as conversation data files so the virtual assistant can respond to common student queries with relevant answers and understand local nuances that are unique to NTU.

For example, Ask Lyon recognizes that halls, hostels, and residences all refer to student housing. If a freshman wants to know how much it costs to stay in a hostel, the virtual assistant provides hall rates and relevant information.

The students also taught the virtual assistant to understand Singlish, a Singapore slang that borrows from local languages, by adding training phrases on Dialogflow. If a user asks Ask Lyon to find out where to “dapao” food, the virtual assistant understands that “dapao” means takeaway and provides food recommendations.

“The virtual assistant project on Dialogflow allowed students to gain hands-on virtual assistant development experience by working alongside staff and peers,” says Vivienne Tan, Director, Enterprise IT, Centre for IT Services at NTU. “Such collaboration between staff and students creates a positive environment to attract prospective students.”

Expanding the power of AI for students and staff

As first-year students settle into the routine of campus life, Ask Lyon receives less orientation-related questions but continues to be a go-to source for administrative matters and more. Unlike bots that serve a single-purpose, Ask Lyon serves multiple purposes during students’ life cycles. Dialogflow’s Mega Agent feature enables NTU’s virtual assistant to process up to 20,000 intents. For example, the virtual assistant can answer students queries on academics, finance, and matters related to campus life.

Helping students navigate the campus with indoor wayfinding

In the next phase of Ask Lyon, the virtual assistant is to be integrated with NTU Maps, an indoor mapping and wayfinding solution built on Google Maps Platform to help users find their way around the NTU campus.

Sprawled across 200-hectares, NTU is the largest university campus in Singapore, with hundreds of buildings. NTU Maps have more than 4,000 points of interest included and will further improve the student and visitor experience.

For example, students can locate tutorial rooms and lecture theaters through Lyon so they aren't late for class. Based on the user’s shared location, the wayfinder will calculate the most efficient route by car, foot, or shuttle bus.

Attracting and engaging students with digital innovations

AI and machine learning applications are built on data, which means that the virtual assistant improves with the amount of data it ingests and its ability to analyze it.

“This virtual assistant project on Google Cloud exemplifies our Smart Campus vision to harness digital technologies to support better learning and living experiences on campus. We believe that with the use of Cloud technologies, we can be more agile to provide student services in a seamless and convenient manner and will support other use cases in the future,” says Vivienne.