La Trobe University pioneers Masters of AI, focused on job-readiness and industry relevance

La Trobe University building

In 2021 La Trobe University became one of the first Australian universities to offer a Master of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – a critical step to shoring up Australia’s AI-enabled future.

In its first year the course attracted 20 students for the two-year degree, which was designed specifically to produce AI-informed job-ready graduates.

According to the Australian Computer Society’s Digital Pulse report for 2021, Australia will need a significant AI workforce by 2030 across disciplines including computer vision, robotics, data science, human language technologies, and other related fields. Estimates on the scale of demand range widely – from 32,000 to 161,000 – depending on the speed of adoption in various sectors.

Professor Henry Duh, Head of Computer Science and Information Technology at La Trobe University, said filling the workforce need for AI specialists was just the starting point when developing the degree.

“We considered how we can offer a new AI degree that ticks the boxes for quality assurance, but also produces high-quality job-ready candidates with industry-relevant skills.

“There are many white papers and reports about AI being one of the key technologies that will influence innovation and creativity in the near future,” Professor Duh said.

It’s critical that our graduates have the experience and skills to meet the demands of industry as soon as they complete their studies.

The two-year Masters degree addresses issues such as problem solving with AI; improving human and computer communication; learning how to apply machine learning models, algorithms and computer vision; deep learning techniques and AI in areas such as image recognition, machine translation and speech synthesis. It also considers the social and ethical impacts of AI.

La Trobe also offers a one-year Graduate Diploma in AI.

A key consideration for La Trobe was to ensure that graduates from both programs emerge work-ready with skills and capabilities required by industry. Through its collaboration with Microsoft, La Trobe has access to Microsoft Learn for Educators which includes curriculum, assessments and a range of teaching assets required to teach Microsoft AI certification.

La Trobe also encouraged Microsoft to develop new content for AI labs which are integral to the way it teaches.

Although content from Microsoft Learn – including the newly created lab content – can be integrated into La Trobe’s curriculum, Professor Duh stresses that how that content is used has been left to course lecturers.

“This ensures Microsoft can maintain their independence for certification and we maintain our independence as a tertiary educator, which is something quite unique,” said Professor Duh.

“Really it’s a great thing; from a subject coordinator and lecturer’s perspective it’s fairly easy for them to revise their content to make it more industry relevant.

“Secondly, they save a lot of the preparation time so they can pay attention to the real teaching work,” said Professor Duh.

When studying at La Trobe, the Masters and Graduate Diploma AI students have access to Microsoft’s Azure platform, Microsoft Learn student content, and also a number of credits to use Azure sandboxes in their projects.

They can also choose to sit for a Microsoft certification; Prodigy Learning has established an online testing centre at La Trobe where students who wish to acquire the Microsoft certifications will be assessed.

La Trobe University is the first institution in the world to offer the Microsoft AI Associate Engineer Certification, which will be launched globally in the future.

Professor Duh said the opportunity to emerge from the degree with both a Masters in AI as well as a new Microsoft AI Associate Engineer Certification increases the competitiveness for graduates when entering the job market.

When we designed this degree and curriculum it was to provide job ready skills; with Microsoft the students can apply what they have learned in the classroom.

“One student told me that in the past they received a degree from the University but they still needed to spend extra money and time to study the industry certification.

“With our course they can completely do it in one shot and the curriculum is industry relevant – which they think is a great thing,” said Professor Duh.

And that industry relevance is dynamic by design. At present La Trobe leverages Microsoft content that covers topics such as machine learning and AI fundamentals.

In the future Professor Duh expects it to expand to cover areas such as quantum computing and mixed reality – but the curriculum will always reflect the real world.

“We pay attention to whether the student can apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real environment.”

It’s the sort of forward thinking that is essential for Australia to ensure an AI-enabled future.