MANAGEMENT

How are AI chatbots transforming the university experience?

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AI-powered chatbots can help students navigate campus life.

Universities are increasingly seeing the value of adopting artificial intelligence (AI) solutions like chatbots to close critical communications gaps between student, staff and faculty.

Although chatbots were once – and perhaps still are – a frustration to the person trying to reach a customer support consultant to file a complaint or to amend a delivery address, the technology behind these tools has come a long way since.

Today’s AI-driven chatbots are capable of handling user communication commands more effectively. With Machine Learning (ML) and Natural Language Processing (NLP), they can understand free language, remember and recall conversations quickly, and build context to solve more complex queries.

In the world of business, these intelligent solutions can save an estimated 30 percent on costs. For this reason, predictions say nearly 80 percent of businesses in the world will use chatbots by 2020.

In higher education, the trend is gathering pace.

In university administration, AI chatbots help streamline certain processes such as admissions, scheduling and even teaching, offering timely and accurate help to students without the need to bulk up campus support staff.

As AI technology advances, these tools will only grow in value to boost efficiencies in all functions across the university ecosystem, from IT to administration and teaching. 

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AI chatbots to streamline admissions

Probably the most crucial use for AI chatbots in higher education is their ability to help recruitment teams convert admissions queries into university applications.

The start of a new academic year is always a busy time for admissions staff who constantly find themselves bombarded with queries about courses, fee structures, support services, accommodation options and the like. Responding to the influx can be daunting and for the university, would require plenty of resources.

Here’s where AI chatbots can step in. They can function round the clock to handle queries coming in from any part of the world, providing automated responses to common responses and removing the problem of ambiguity or delayed replies.

Powered by AI, they can gather data on these queries that could go towards informing future admissions strategies. Are student prospects confused about specific information on the university’s website? Are they confused about a particular course offering? Data from these interactions can be very valuable to the university’s marketing teams.

At Georgia State University (GSU), “Pounce”, a conversational AI system built by the Boston-based AdmitHub, has been helping the institution stop the summer melt since 2016. 

The virtual assistant was deployed following a successful randomised control trial, during which the chatbot was able to exchange up to 200,000 messages with students – a volume that would have required the recruitment of 10 additional full-time staff members at the university.

In 2017, GSU won a Technology Association of Georgia Excalibur Award for successfully implementing the system and boosting enrollment rates as a result.

“Our No. 1 goal was to deploy a solution that would nudge and walk students through complex processes such as filing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as well as the basics of the admitted student next steps checklist in a personalised way. 

“The process and results far exceeded my expectations,” says Scott Burke, the assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions, in a news release about the award.

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AI chatbots to enhance student experience

Beyond the admissions process, AI chatbots are capable of helping students navigate other key aspects of campus life, from organising classroom schedules right down to the nitty-gritty of recalling lost passwords or locating a facility on campus.

For example, at the Technical University of Berlin in Germany, “Alex” was rolled out in 2017 to help students find and organise their classroom schedules more efficiently. 

Students would ask Alex questions like the timing of classes, who would teach them and what exams they would have to take and the chatbot would provide natural-sounded responses to their queries. It would even ask follow-up questions to better understand the information the student was really after, according to a Times Higher Education report.

The UK’s Lancaster University, meanwhile, recently launched “Ask LU”, a chatbot companion for student that can similarly provide information on timetables, tutors and grades, and in addition, also offer helpful tips like where to find a free computer or washing machine. The chatbot’s abilities are further refined the more it is used, with every interaction helping it grow its wealth of knowledge.

Further to that, the university is looking to expand Ask LU’s welfare offering so it is capable of assisting students who are struggling whether academically or in their personal lives.

“We’re working with the welfare team to develop coaching questions, ways to manage anxiety, and mindfulness tools,” Lancaster’s IT Partnering and Innovation Head Chris Dixon says in EdTechnology.

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At George Washington University, a decision last year pilot the 24/7 chatbot named MARTHA resulted in 89 percent of users requesting for it to be a permanent offering.

Powered by the BMC Helix Digital Workplace platform, which leverages IBM Watson Assistant conversational interface functionality, MARTHA has developed in range and capabilities over time. 

Today, the AI chatbot can search knowledge-based articles, create or submit service requests, check request statuses, provide step-by-step instructional support, answer FAQs and integrate with other systems to perform tasks.

Queries can use natural language as MARTHA is trained to provide near human-like support. The chatbot can distinguish between its users, identifying them as they sign in and pulling information from their profiles to draw insights and respond accordingly.

“We’ve created a service broker that can handle decisions on where to go to look for information,” Jonathan Fozard, assistant vice president for the CIO’s office, says in EdTech.

“As we educated it and users tested it, the Watson component was learning alongside of us. If someone types in a question about 3D printing, we know that’s most likely a student who has access to 3D printers in the engineering classroom or a medical enterprise.”

The future of AI chatbots in higher education

Future developments of AI chatbots will see its functionalities expand beyond administrative and IT support matters to include pedagogy.

University of East Anglia (UEA) lecturer and edtech startup Studious Director Dr Ivan Mitchell is reportedly working with his colleagues from the University College London (UCL) on developing a chatbot capable of teaching and providing tutor support.

“If a student, for example, has an inquiry about what transformational leadership is, we can give them an answer, but we can then take them through various interactive learning paths, for example, to discuss various analyses or evaluations or applications of the concept being studied.

“Through an interactive dialogue, we can start probing the student about their knowledge and curiosities, and tailor that learning specifically. This is what makes it a more adaptive and personalised learning experience,” he said in EdTechnology.

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Although still in its infancy, such developments will surely raise arguments on the ethics and the moral complexities of having an AI teach students, two key issues in the ongoing debate on AI. 

But wherever you stand on the debate, there’s still no stopping its development or denying the technology’s potential. AI-powered tools like chatbots will continue to remain staples of the future, inevitably blazing a trail in any transactional industry.

And so it must be reminded that technologies like these were neither meant to completely replace humans nor be a cure-all approach to systemic inefficiencies. They are meant to play a supportive role, to augment human capabilities by dealing with the petty day-to-day activities that do not require human cognition. 

Of paramount importance is to return to the primary objective of these tools, which is to improve university interactions with their Number 1 customer: students. A balanced and blended approach to implementing AI chatbots, therefore, is surely the best way forward. 

And as it is in the business world, a high touch approach to handling processes like admissions and campus support will always be the preferred mode of communication.

No matter how finely-tuned they are, AI chatbots certainly cannot compare to the kind of nuanced interaction and correspondence a human being is able to provide.