Could AI help students pick their CAO courses?

A UCC startup hopes to help students make the difficult choice by analysing past data

What CAO courses to put on their list is arguably the hardest decision students have to make in the course of their secondary education. At the time, the list of third-level courses seems to be fixing the course of their future, their career, their possible income, and even future happiness. Many factors need to be taken into account: the student’s aptitudes for different subjects, their interests, what universities are feasible for them to attend given location and financial factors, even the job prospects in various fields. The pressure placed on these 17-18-year-olds is immense.  

A new Cork-based start-up, Yooni, aims to use artificial intelligence to help students make these difficult decisions. The company was launched by two UCC electrical and electronic engineering graduates, Darragh Lucey and Nathan Mayes. The software began in conjunction with UCC and Cork Institute of Technology but is now expanding to include recommendations from third level institutes nationwide. It has already been used by students from over 100 schools, suggesting that, though this idea is very novel, there is a market for this sort of AI guidance. 

Yooni brands itself as “college course recommendation software” and claims to be able to provide students with their optimum college courses in under 2 hours (40 minutes of assessment tests for the student, and then about an hour for the artificial intelligence software to calculate the result). Firstly students input the subjects they are taking for their Leaving Cert and a prediction of grades they will achieve in the June exams. The software then compares this data with that of previous third-level graduates. It examines the leaving cert subjects and grades of those graduates, what college courses they went on to study, and their academic performance in those courses. It uses this information to assess which courses the second level student should academically excel at. 

So what does the student get for the once-off 49.99 fee? Well, to start they get a “Course fit report” which tells them their 5 optimum courses, according to the algorithm, in each of Ireland’s 24 higher education institutes. They also receive a “Career fit report” with five career fields that Yooni judges to be the best fit for the student. Aside from this, they receive a comprehensive personality report to help them with their choice. In essence, it gives the students a better understanding of where they are most likely to find their right college fit, on paper at the very least. The students also have the chance to get in touch with a registered guidance counselor through Yooni’s platform. 

A very positive aspect of Yooni is its Carpool Courses series, inspired by the Carpool Karaoke segment of the Late Late Show with James Corden,   where they informally interview graduates of various degrees. Particularly in an exceptional year like this, where on-campus open days have been forced to move online, it is important for secondary school leavers to get a real feel for courses they are interested in. It has to be said that the best way to find out what it is like to be a student of a particular course, is to talk to those very students. Informal, personal opinions and experiences of courses are a valuable resource to students.  

New innovations like Yooni could have the potential to change the entire landscape of CAO and career decisions for students. But perhaps the strength in AI-based recommendations like these are not as a final concrete solution to the student’s indecision, but as a useful starting point for further thought and discussion with their parents, peers, and with current third level students. For students who have no idea where to start to look in the masses of higher education options available, AI-based recommendations could give them that catalyst for further conversations and introspection. 

Of course, in recent months we have seen the potential for algorithms to fail at crucial moments for students. After the mistake in the code used to predict Leaving Cert grades this summer, at least 6,500 students were left with a lower grade than they deserved. An issue in a single line of code out of 50,000 had a major impact on students, and this is something that needs to be considered in the case of algorithms like Yooni. It goes without saying, that the systems need to be thoroughly tested and examined when it is being used to make decisions with such gravity. 

While the general idea of Yooni is interesting and certainly in keeping with current moves towards increased use of AI, it is a change that certainly won’t sit easily with everyone. You could argue that there are some decisions which machine learning shouldn’t be allowed to meddle in. On the other side of the debate, many may think that companies like Yooni enable students to be more informed about their compatibility for a course. With the Higher Education Authority reporting one in four students do not complete the college course they began, questions need to be asked about whether students are informed enough when choosing their courses, and AI-based or not this certainly needs to be dealt with.

This article was updated on December 15 at 14:10.

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.