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Western University: New digital lead foresees larger AI footprint on campus – The London Free Press

Western University students could soon be plugging into a Netflix-like platform to choose their courses, one of the kinds of changes the school’s first chief digital officer foresees as he steps into the new job.
Western University students could soon be plugging into a Netflix-like platform to choose their courses, one of the kinds of changes the school’s first chief digital officer foresees as he steps into the new job.

“It would be a fully customized, individualized approach to course selection, using machining learning and artificial intelligence,” said Mark Daley, whose job is to oversee the digital transformation of the university.

Western intends to plunge headfirst into the digital world, with Daley taking the reins Sept. 1.

“It’s something every large organization is going through right now, and we live in a world surrounded by digital-first services, like Netflix, Amazon, and so that’s the expectation of our (students),” Daley said.

Students, he said, are used to doing everything from their smartphones.

“We want that type of digital, seamless . . . experience to transfer over to the experience they have at Western.”

But Daley said his first job will be consulting with staff and students to figure out their priorities.

“The biggest mistake you can make is running off and building something nobody really wants,” he said.

The new system he envisions would scour the university’s databanks to make course recommendations to students based on previous student outcomes and their own achievements, Daley said.

“We have decades of data of student journeys through our systems,” he said. “We know what has worked for students and what hasn’t.”

Daley describes Western’s course advice to students now as “high touch” rather than high tech.

“Academic counsellors do a heroic amount of work, but there is only so many of them,” he said. “A lot of this we can automate by using AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning and by looking at those thousands and thousands of student records.”

“This is a perfect moment in time… to really accelerate our digital transformation.” Mark Daley has been appointed #WesternU‘s first-ever chief #digital officer, and will lead the creation of a new Digital Western unit. #CdnPse #OnPse #LdnOnt @DaleyMaths

In 10 years, Daley said, he hopes Western will look the same but have “a certain infrastructural excellence in the digital realm.”

Daley, who grew up in London and attended Oakridge secondary school, studied computer science, mathematics and neuroscience at Western.

Along with Daley’s hiring, the university is creating a digital unit to figure out its best strategies for use of the technology.

“(This is) where we use AI, machine learning and mathematical modelling to tackle questions of strategic importance, so our decision-making process is informed by the best mathematical models we have,” Daley said.

Florentine Strzelczyk, Western’s provost and vice-president (academic), said Daley “is perfectly suited” to lead the new unit, to be known as Digital Western.

“(Digital Western) will support the use of more sophisticated data on campus, empower decision-makers with the best quantitative evidence available, and ensure we have the tools and technology to compete as a world-class research-intensive university,” she said.

Daley had been a special adviser to the university president on data strategy since 2019. He is also vice-president of research for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and chairs the board of Compute Ontario that co-ordinates government funding, skills development and operations to improve digital infrastructure in Ontario.


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