Tim Cockle

Director Consulting Expert

The buzz surrounding Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Generative AI (GenAI) continues and there are countless predictions about where this technology will go over the next few years, how it might impact us as individuals and how it will disrupt sectors. As a sector Higher Education is embracing Digital Transformation and seeking to engage with students that set a high bar for their Digital experiences. So, what do some of the current trends mean for universities looking to the future? One Gartner prediction that caught my eye was “By 2027, 50% of people in advanced economies will have AI personal assistants working for them every day”1. Forrester are also predicting  a rise in personal AI and are recommending that organisations get ready for a time when as individuals we are all more plugged into our own AI (ByoAI - Bring Your Own AI)2.

10 years ago, the talk was all about smart speakers that power a smart home. A decade on and where are we? Well, they can recognise your voice and personalise reminders and to-do lists, but ultimately the “skills” tend to be a bit limited. However, the sales have now plateaued3 due to the scale of adoption4.

What Generative AI, and in particular products like ChatGPT have given us is a conversational interface, something that really provides a revolution in how we interact with computers. This is just as revolutionary as the move from the text-based command line interface to the graphical windows interface pioneered by Xerox PARC and now the primary interface to our PC and phones.

The concept of a virtual personal assistant adds another dimension to this, as the personal assistant can access your diary, applications, chats, calls, and can interact with you via your phone, PC, headphones and smart speakers. More importantly, a virtual personal assistant can converse and use the new powerful multimodal AI platforms to help organise, inform, guide and even coach.

A third dimension a virtual personal assistant can add is through a multi-agent ecosystem - it is not just an interface to on-line services, it is part of a connected network of agents. Your personal virtual assistant talking to other agents, or your friends, family and organisations. Working on your behalf, behind the scenes to coordinate events, find great deals and pull together the various threads of everyday life.

Perhaps one of the key complaints about current digital services and content is how we are bombarded with information, stealing our attention, every new channel provides another series of notifications. What is interesting about the concept of a virtual personal assistant is that they can act as a gateway, filtering out distraction and noise, and helping to elevate attention fatigue!

For a student this could mean a new way to interact with one another and university services.


What does that mean for universities and student engagement?

To engage with students, you can no longer expect them to come to you, your website or app. You need to be prepared to go to them and to create APIs for the new wave of virtual personal assistants to interact with. You need to have a voice.

Attracting, engaging and retaining students has always been important, and with the rise of micro credentials, the recruitment cycle will need to target current students guiding them on their next step on the learning journey. Successful universities will build stronger relationships, deeper engagement and deliver a personalised student experience.

Through personal virtual agents the university can help coordinate and optimise university services and spaces. Whilst improving student experience and through the sharing of data, they can build a deeper relationship with students, further nurturing groups and societies.

Student wellbeing could be enhanced by combining university data with personal data via the Virtual Personal Assistant. For example, the university providing nudges based on attendance or feedback from learning systems on progress and anticipated attainment profile. Suggestions could be shared with the student’s personal assistant to make more personalised and targeted recommendations to improve their outcomes.

The power of the virtual digital assistant is its ability to process data undaunted, unlike how I feel when hit with a barrage of notifications, alerts and messages. Within universities there is countless potential for students and staffs to share experiences and ideas. It would be easy to get lost in a sea of information, but virtual personal assistants could provide a sort of “managed serendipity”, making connections through the noise based on areas of interest, activities and areas for support.

It is easy to get caught up in the “digital world” but done well, it can encourage and grow interactions in the physical world. Again, this is something that a university could excel at, bring together people and place - all coordinated through their own agents acting in an ecosystem of virtual personal assistants.


What can universities do?

The current AI landscape is moving fast, and it can be hard to pick out the hype from the reality. But, unlike our experience with smart speakers, I think there is a fundamental shift that has happened. The good news is that the technology landscape is ripe for experimentation and prototyping with cloud computing and platform services giving ready access to emerging technologies.

Just looking at how more conversational interfaces can be built around the university’s services and data is a simple place to start. Universities should work with students to understand how they would best like to be kept informed, and how this affects their choice of university and degree. Building out internal APIs will help develop experience in creating an open architecture, which is likely to be critical for success in creating powerful agents to operate in the new personal virtual assistant ecosystem. And, also key to unlocking the value from the universities data.

Will Personal Virtual Assistants be gatekeepers to the student experience, or companions on the learning journey? Universities should consider how they can have a voice and develop the interfaces to maximise how they can engage with the Personal Virtual Assistants working with them to deliver the best student experience.


What Next?

If you would like to know more about how Personal Virtual Assistants may shape your digital strategy, please get in touch as we would be happy to delve into more detail and discuss what it means for your institution and how you might prepare for this shift in Student Engagement.

Visit our Higher Education page to find out more about our views and experiences across the sector.



1 Gartner – “Top Technology Trends for 2024” (October 2023)

2 https://www.forrester.com/what-it-means/ep344-2024-ai-predictions/

3 https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=US50654823

4 https://www.statista.com/statistics/956343/ownership-of-smart-speakers-uk/

About this author


Tim Cockle

Director Consulting Expert

Tim has a broad level of experience across multiple sectors including higher education and healthcare. Tim believes in a collaborative approach helping clients realise the benefits offered by technology. Tim helps clients focus on the needs of the business and the customers/service users and then ...