Why chatbots are going to college

Last fall, Leeds Beckett University in England did something that might seem a tad out-of-character for a school that’s been around nearly 200 years: it deployed chatbots to help students ease into college life.

The bot, named “Becky,” handles many of the often-tedious tasks associated with enrolling in school, including figuring out term dates, class schedules, accommodations and how to get around campus. The bot also learns as it goes, tapping the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to analyze patterns of student inquiries and providing them with suggestions about courses they might want to attend.

More recently, the University of Adelaide implemented a new AI-powered chatbot system to help anxious students quickly access their updated ATAR score – the number used to gain entry to university. Accessed via Adelaide’s Facebook messenger page, the Adjusted ATAR chatbot meant students didn’t have to wait in long, frustrating lines to find out if they were eligible to receive bonus points – a make or break for many trying to gain acceptance into their preferred school. In the busiest hour, the chatbot handled one user every five seconds. Streamlining the process has had a fantastic response, with 60 percent of users rating the interaction as awesome.

These are just a few of the latest examples of how bots are becoming instrumental to universities by improving student recruitment, enrollment and education processes.

As most consumers know, chatbots have become a fact of life in recent years. Propelled by rapid advances in AI and natural language capabilities, as well as mobile messaging apps, customer service bots help many of us choose or repair products, listen to the news or weather report and get directions.

Yet, until recently, chatbot use has mostly escaped institutions of higher learning. That’s about to change, because it must.
Today’s students have grown up in a digital world. They are constantly online accessing information that offers a wealth of knowledge, so they can be discerning about life’s buying decisions, including their education. This leads them to expect more personalized, attentive service from brands they patronize. In fact, roughly 60 percent of students choose institutions based on personalized attention prior to enrollment, according to a National Student Satisfaction Report from Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Multiple studies suggest prospective students may shun schools they perceive as technologically primitive.

Similarly, younger people today expect brands (including colleges and universities) to connect with them on their favorite channels. And lately, that means mobile messaging apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and WeChat. About 4 billion people around the globe already use mobile messaging apps, and studies have shown this population is dominated by younger generations.

This is where chatbots come into play for universities. With most chatbots built for mobile messaging apps, they give institutions of higher learning a more effective way to reach students – and a greater chance their communications will actually be read. According to AdmitHub, a firm building custom chatbots, 98 percent of text messages are opened compared to a mere 23 percent of emails.

More pertinently, text messaging chatbots such as this also offer schools the opportunity to automate time-consuming and costly administrative processes while improving student experience.

Ratcheting-up recruitment
With chatbots, colleges and universities can establish immediate, two-way conversations for common requests about the school, freeing admissions staff to focus their energy on situations demanding more 1-on-1 interaction. Utilizing supervised machine learning algorithms, schools can also continuously improve the quality of their automated bot conversations to the point that students might one day not even realize they are dealing with automated agents.

In addition, embracing chatbots to assist with the recruitment process demonstrates to students that the institution isn’t (forgive the pun) too old school. Modern students look for colleges that understand and use the best technology – mirroring how they see themselves. Utilizing such tools could go a long way toward attracting digitally savvy prospective students to campus.

Easing the enrollment grind
Chatbots can also ensure students come to school once they’ve been accepted.

A few years ago, Georgia State University (GSU) noticed an inexplicable jump in the number of students accepted to the school during the summer who weren’t showing up for enrollment in the fall–a phenomenon known as “summer melt.”

Working closely with AdmitHub, GSU piloted a virtual coach called “Pounce” to regularly connect with incoming students, keeping them engaged and interested in coming to school by providing answers to questions that might be hard to find through traditional means. In the first four months, the chatbot reportedly exchanged nearly 200,000 messages with students, a volume that would have required the university to hire 10 full time staffers. More to the point, students in a control group using Pounce had a 21.4 percent lower summer melt rate than those not using it, as well as a 3.9 percent higher enrollment rate. GSU has been expanding the program ever since, pointing to the remarkable possibilities of this technology.

Today, more universities are going down this path of using chatbots to ease the enrollment grind.

Escalating education
Chatbots could also help students make sure they get to class, and at the same time serve as virtual assistance to teachers in the classroom.

According to Gartner, a Top 10 Strategic Technology Impacting Education will be an innovation it calls “Nudge Tech.” This involves a collection of technologies, including chatbots, that work together to achieve timely personalized interactions with students, staff and faculty such as a text (SMS) reminder for class just-in-time.

Meantime in the classroom chatbots could be used to take some of the workload off the hands of teachers by assisting with grading tests and essays. This would be particularly useful for massive open online courses (MOOCs) where hundreds of students might be enrolled.

Chatbots also promise to change instruction itself because of their amazing machine learning ability. In the future, it’s possible they could have the aptitude to gather data from hundreds of thousands of sources, including other universities, to create exceptional learning experiences for students worldwide. This could eventually lead to subscription-based online educational scenarios, with curriculum delivered direct to mobile messaging applications, untethering students from physical classrooms or PCs.

While still in early stages of development, it’s easy to see the promise and potential of chatbots for institutions of higher learning. Chatbots can help automate most administrative processes involved in recruiting students while improving their education and overall campus experience. With all they offer, it’s not too difficult to understand why chatbots will be going to college–en masse–very soon.

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