Each year, more colleges and universities are deploying chatbots, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only furthered this trend. As artificial intelligence (AI) technology improves, chatbots and virtual assistants are better equipped to handle more responsibilities in the academic world.
While chatbots aren’t new to higher education marketers, some universities are still reluctant to invest in them. Before we jump into the ways universities can use chatbots, let’s review some of the reasons why chatbots are beneficial to higher education:
- Unanswered questions can be a roadblock during the admission process. Chatbots remove hurdles by quickly answering questions and nudging prospective students to complete tasks.
- They save your staff time. Instead of answering the same question for the 1000th time, administrative staff can focus on meaningful work that helps your students.
- Instead of waiting for requests, chatbots can be programmed to be proactive. They’ll reach out to students to remind them of campus events, deadlines, or to simply check in on them.
- Post-COVID-19, the virtual classroom has increased the demand for virtual support. Chatbots can help students—and professors—navigate new tools, schedules, and find connection within virtual experiences.
- Young people are comfortable dealing with virtual avatars and will readily accept a technology that makes campus life easier.
Chatbots can increase enrollment through timely communications, improve the campus experience, and help students be successful—all while reducing administrative tasks for university staff. Sounds like a win-win, right?
So, why aren’t more schools implementing chatbots? What’s holding them back? Perhaps the word “chatbot” has become a little stale. When people hear that word, they think in terms of the last time they were shopping online:
The typical eCommerce salesbot suits its humble purpose and can certainly help universities in some situations. But the technology of creating virtual avatars has taken leaps and bounds since these wooCommerce plugins.
We’re going to introduce you to what is possible, and show you some of the virtual characters of 2020. You may need to brace yourself for a bit of future shock because we’re seeing things in this field that were only in science fiction movies a few years ago.
Learn From Successful Virtual Avatars: Seraphine and Miquela
This is the Instagram channel of Seraphine, an Instagram influencer with 400K+ followers. She has a Twitter account too, with a hearty 339K followers to match. She bills herself as a “songwriter + producer | professional daydreamer.” Like any influencer, Seraphine shares photos of herself traveling the world for selfies in front of tourist landmarks, or else she stays home snuggling with her cat. She has a playlist on Spotify, posts the secrets to skincare tips, and occasionally grumps about not being a morning person
There’s just one catch: Seraphine is not real. She’s the VR creation of Riot Games, originally a promotional tool for their hit title League of Legends. Having started as an in-game character, she’s stepped out of the frame to enjoy a “real” life on social media. No matter that she lacks an actual flesh and bone body, her fans respond to her as if she were fully human. She’s the latest in a trend that’s been rolling for several years, spun out of Japanese culture by way of vTubers, which are virtual YouTube celebrities.
Virtual YouTube celebrities not only sing and perform but have channels where they stream video games. We don’t mean they’re part of the game, we mean they’re depicted in a corner with a headset on working the controls and venting frustration at the tricky parts, like any gaming streamer. Beyond mere fandom, CGI-created virtual influencers are picking up as a marketing trend in general, led by pioneers such as Lil Miquela, who has the clout to make the cover of magazines. Musicians at Coachella in 2019 granted her interviews. CNN did a feature on Lil Miquela two years back, talking about the emerging AI technology that goes into animating her and capturing her voice actor’s motions.
Higher education can learn a thing or two from these engaging virtual influencers. These aren’t bland robots; they crack jokes, use slang, comment on current events, and have endearing quirks. Their creators understand their audience and have crafted personalities that keep their followers riveted.
Today’s students are more likely to interact with a chatbot that looks like them and has a real voice and personality.
Types of Chatbots
Despite the technology being available for decades now, some schools still seem shy about deploying them. They worry that people will be turned off or annoyed by talking to an avatar on their website. That fear seems unfounded, however, as research from Salesforce shows that “69% of consumers prefer to use chatbots for the speed at which they can communicate with a brand.”
A chatbot is just a program that simulates human conversation. The user can talk to the bot via voice or text. If you stretch the definition enough, Google, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri are all just very big, highly specialized chatbots. An automated phone customer service script is also a kind of chatbot. On a website, a personal chatbot can be used to act as a virtual sales-order form, answer questions, or provide links to pages matching a query.
Chatbots come in a few varieties based on their sophistication:
The equivalent of an interactive script, used for direct, simple functions. For one example, utility companies deploy rule-based scripted bots because there are about four or so reasons to call a utility company: needing to hook up new service, needing to terminate service, arrange payment options, or report an outage.
Rough example: If the user said “thank you,” say “you’re welcome.” “Push 1 to speak with an operator.” These have no more conversational skills than a series of nested menus.
Also called “Markov” bots, these are trained like a parrot to understand common queries and responses. They also have simpler scripts powering their internal logic, but add some flexibility in interpreting and replying to queries to handle a wider range of issues.
Rough example: The user just said “Where is my order?” Statistically, most responses to this query amount to some version of “I can link you to your USPS tracking number to locate your package.” Markov chains are a common way to emulate a conversation, but the computer has no interior concept of context. Markov-level chatbots tend to get overwhelmed if the conversation gets too complex.
True AI in chatbots involves full natural language processing, linguistics, semantics, and deep learning to give a richer experience and be more competent at a wider range of queries. They also include the same functions as lesser bots.
Rough example: “I need to report an assault outside the gymnasium.” The word “assault” triggers my security subroutine, and the word “gymnasium” indicates a physical location to dispatch them to. My voice stress meter shows that the user is worried. I will reassure the user that help is on the way and message the security department.
For actual deployment in your school system, the more generalized the bot’s purpose, the more sophisticated the model. A simple script bot or smart bot should suffice at the library. A generalized bot service that can interact at any level (for a bot, anyway) needs to bring its full AI game. In practice, most bots incorporate all of the above methods to some degree.
So, you’ve met some virtual gamer personalities and other bots made for entertainment purposes. But how are actual schools using chatbots? Let’s go over some case studies of real chatbot systems working in schools around the world right now.
Real Chatbots on Campus
Just as Google is capable of handling thousands of trivial information requests ranging from math problems to word definitions to directing you to the nearest Taco Bell, chatbots benefit a university by being able to field dozens of simple user queries. This can save time and payroll, as well as being one less face-to-face contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, today’s student is a little more comfortable talking to a bot for some purposes. A student might be too shy to ask a human being something trivial, or too embarrassed to ask about a personal matter. But chatbots are wonderfully free of judgment. There is no such thing as a “stupid question” to a chatbot, and they serve as a discreet source of information for sensitive topics.
Having a chatbot on your website helps potential students as well. An admissions bot can field simple queries about course catalog, financial aid, links to admissions forms, questions about Visas, directions to campus locations, and more. They can basically function as a hybrid between an automated admissions desk and a mini-search engine. The bottom line is that they can increase enrollment.
Here is a simple demo of one chatbot set up for enrollment questions. In the question and answer exchange, you can see a similarity between the chatbot’s interaction and Google when you search for a question it can answer with a featured snippet. The advantage over a plain website with pages to sort through is that the candidate can simply type in a query and get a succinct response answering that question.
As of 2016, Georgia State has launched its chatbot program, named “Pounce” after the Panthers’ team mascot. It guides students through enrollment steps such as completing the application, filling out a FAFSA application form, or getting housing information. It can also answer general queries about everything from financial aid to campus facilities.
Pounce is a special case study because there’s also a fascinating article showing us what makes this chatbot tick. We see that Pounce and other chatbots of its creed have a full team behind them, who carefully script responses to give the chatbot a balanced personality that’ll resonate with students.
“Sunny,” the Arizona State University chatbot, is likewise guided by a communications team that strives for the ideal personality as a helpful digital assistant. Upbeat, but “not a cheerleader.” Providing helpful reminders, but not nagging. Supportive, but not cloying. Chatbot scripters aim for a personality that feels like a “near-peer, a classmate who understands the nuances of campus culture but doesn’t assume the familiarity of the best buddy.” Razi Shadmehry, public relations specialist, describes the ideal chatbot as “like your friend who’s a little bit smarter than you,” but still “understands the memes that you understand.”
Campus Guide Bot:
Once students are enrolled and oriented, chatbot assistance doesn’t stop there. College life can be complicated, as students buzz through a busy day of courses, lectures, events, and personal matters. In adult life, it’s easy to forget how overwhelming the transition is from childhood to those first few years of adulthood when you’re suddenly responsible for your own appointments.
The COVID-19 pandemic is another factor that is placing additional stress on students. During this time, they feel frustrated because communication channels are narrowed while they have more questions and can’t get individual help. One student reports “I could spend 14 hours a day sat in front of a computer working and still not finish everything I need to.”
Chatbots can be that fill-in resource that is a quick, handy helper for harried students. You can ask a chatbot anything during a 2 AM cram session. You can have the chatbot set personalized reminders. It can help locate your study materials or jump you to the next lecture.
Overseas, Staffordshire University has become the first UK higher education facility to deploy a chatbot to support students with their studies and everyday life. Named “Beacon,” it’s an AI system that connects students with personal tutors, tracks their timetables, and answers hundreds of frequently asked questions about day to day campus services and activities. Beacon has recently won a UK national technology award.
Andrew Proctor, Director of Digital Services at Staffordshire University, has sung the praises of Beacon, as it “was developed to support the retention and progression of students and we can already see the positive impact that it is making.” He also asserts “This is just the beginning of Beacon’s capability and impact,” with a vision for more creative developments in chatbot technology. Beacon is seen as an augmented staff member.
As we mentioned before, today’s students are in a more stressful situation than any crop of college attendees in recent memory. That impact is also taking a toll on their mental health. Cambridge students report that the worst part of attending university during a pandemic is social isolation. There’s nobody to vent to with social opportunities limited. The lack of separation between work time and downtime conspires to make students burn out fast.
Students are also reluctant to bring these issues up to the staff, feeling like one more burden on an already overloaded system. Lockdown and quarantine situations even make it difficult to justify a simple thing like going outside for a walk to clear one’s head.
Bethel University in Indiana is a small liberal-arts Christian college that was suffering three years of declining retention in a row. Until they deployed “Wilhelm,” an AI text message bot that interacts with students to find out where they need support.
Wilhelm is programmed to intervene. So far, the chatbot has identified 36 students who were afraid of failing and connected them with tutors, recommended 26 students who felt socially isolated to attend social events, and detected 32 students who were thinking of dropping out and arranged a follow-up with staff, which led to all 32 students re-enrolling.
That is a staggering record for a small piece of software! If you had an employee who could single-handedly retain 94 students, you’d say they were worth paying top dollar, wouldn’t you? This is a resounding case study in the effectiveness of chatbots. A recent follow-up in April 2020 reports that Wilhelm has expanded to connecting students with services to help with those struggling financially, those who needed coaching, and yes, those who could use a virtual therapy session. In a way, Wilhelm is functioning as a virtual social worker for students.
Have We Just Seen the Future?
Humanity has been toying with the concept of virtual assistants for generations now. From our science fiction and fantasy stories to those primitive voice-bots on the phone, and now into true AI systems that are proving themselves effective in the field. Each generation gets a little more comfortable with the bots and technology, so it makes sense for any institution that caters to young adults to make room for virtual assistants.
As we’ve shown here, chatbots can be much more than a simple avatar on your website. They can become constantly available members of your staff, providing additional support and adding value to your school’s student experience. There might come a time when AI virtual assistants are even mandatory for the function of a modern college. Previous generations have shied away from bots because they were crude, brutal scripts that were more annoyance than a help. But if we’re talking about one of those cool chatbots like in the sci-fi movies? Sign us up!