What We're Learning from Using Chatbots in Higher Ed During Covid

By Brenna Gomez
June 26, 2020

Before the global pandemic, the UIA launched a project to scale the use of chatbot technology to support student success. We wanted to understand how artificial intelligence like chatbots could improve access to information in areas like admissions, financial aid, and student services. As it turns out, in this time of COVID-19, UIA campuses that participated in the chatbot project have found their chatbots particularly helpful in keeping students up-to-date on health information and policy changes.

 

You’ve probably used a chatbot yourself. Ever navigated to a website in search of a piece of information, to be met by an often named piece of AI that asks if you have questions? That’s a chatbot! Some chatbots allow users to type questions into a box, and the chatbot’s knowledge base provides an answer. Other chatbots provide topical buttons for users to click on, and the bot provides a short description of said topic. Some chatbots do both. Our project has focused on the use of AI chatbots – those that rely on a dynamic knowledge base maintained by the institution and are trained to mimic human interaction.

 

We were curious what UIA campuses were learning about how chatbots can be helpful during a health crisis – when constantly changing information, and increased demand for that information, make an efficient AI tool particularly useful. Here are a few insights from a recent investigation of student chatbot use at UIA institutions during COVID.

 

1. Students at different campuses are asking similar questions. Despite differences in communication methods (text message-based chatbot, website-based chatbot, or no chatbot at all) and audiences (current student or admitted student), common themes in student questions emerged across UIA campuses. Students were most interested in: refunds (financial aid, housing, parking, tuition, etc.), financial aid/work study, grades and/or grading policies, concerns related to housing, summer/fall planning, commencement, mental health concerns, and the duration of remote learning or remote learning-specific questions.
 

2. Chatbots can initiate and share information with students. In addition to providing responses to frequent questions, chatbots can also share or gather information proactively from students in real time. For example, one campus solicited students’ plans for leaving residence halls via text messages from their chatbot. These messages could reach students more quickly than email or notes posted to student portals, and they helped administrators respond and plan accordingly.

 

3. COVID content can come from chatbot vendors or from the school itself. Several UIA schools have partnered with vendors like AdmitHub and Ocelot to supplement their existing chatbots with COVID-specific content. The vendors provided schools with up-to-date health information to add to their chatbots’ knowledge bases in order to streamline responses to students. However, some UIA schools built their own chatbots instead of using a vendor. This may save money, but means campus personnel will spend more time developing and maintaining the chatbot. These in-house chatbots can pull content directly from campus COVID FAQ pages if integrating a vendor’s COVID information isn’t an option.
 

4. COVID chatbot content varies based on use and audience. Some UIA chatbots, like the University of Central Florida’s Knightbot, are unit or area specific. Knightbot is for financial aid, so if a student asks a general COVID question, they are referred to the university’s COVID website. If they ask how COVID might impact their financial aid, they could be presented with information on CARES Act funding. In other cases, UIA chatbots have a specific intended audience. Benny at Oregon State University supports newly admitted students. Current students won’t need information on remote new student orientation, advanced tuition deposits, and more, so it’s important to also have a COVID website for current students to provide information relevant to the rest of the student population. Some UIA schools also don’t have a public-facing chatbot on their websites. Students might receive a text-message related to a specific campaign, then engage with the chatbot via their phone.
 

5. Chatbots aren’t the only way to reach students. Not all UIA institutions signed on to pilot or scale a chatbot in 2019 because not all solutions are right for all schools at any given time. If you’re not currently using a chatbot, it’s important to identify other effective student communication strategies, particularly in a crisis. Purdue University developed a call center for students to ask their most pressing questions. The Ohio State University implemented “kindness calls” where university volunteers called to check in on student wellbeing. If a student didn’t answer, a volunteer followed up via email. The University of Kansas tracks student questions through their “Conversations with the Provost.” Students can submit questions in advance of these events.

 

What does all this mean? AI innovations like chatbots can be helpful in a crisis by sharing critical information or quickly answering common student questions, but a chatbot’s knowledge base must be extensive and up-to-date in order to be effective. It’s essential to have designated personnel monitor and update content. You should also make sure your chatbot refers out to a contact form or a specific person/department if it’s unable to answer a student question, and you need an escalation protocol for a chatbot communication that indicates a student requires individual support.  
 

The bottom line? AI is a helpful and promising tool for communicating with students in an ongoing crisis like COVID, but it requires constant monitoring and maintenance by campus owners. If appropriately maintained, chatbots can provide a critical communication modality for students. They can also offer campus leaders valuable insight into students’ most frequent questions and concerns at a difficult time – allowing institutions to provide services accordingly.

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