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How chatbots will change the face of campus technology


There are a multitude of ways chatbots can help to streamline the student affairs and services process, maybe as soon as next semester.

In the first few months of the new semester hubbub, what if there was an assistant at the beck and call of students to help them navigate the college process? While the campus faculty and staff are likely too busy during those first few days to answer all the questions on students and parent’s minds, chatbots – akin to Siri, Cortana, and Alexa – could provide the ideal digital assistant to make not only these first few days run smoothly, but also the student’s entire time on campus.

With campus technology already sorely outdated (an EDUCAUSE survey from 2013 found that the average age of student information management systems is over 13 years) AI and chatbots could be the catalysts that finally bring campus tech into the modern era.

From applying to college, to arriving on campus, declaring a major, signing up courses and eventually graduation, there are a multitude of ways bots can help to streamline the process, maybe as soon as next semester.

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College Applications, Acceptance and Arrival on Campus

For high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors, applying to college is daunting, to say the least. After the challenging task of deciding which schools to apply to, the real work begins–filling out applications, submitting transcripts and recommendations, and navigating the differing due dates, fees and requirements of each school. Using the Common Application or an individual university’s as a platform/database, a bot integrated with these systems could greatly help to streamline the process. For example, during the application process, a bot could send push notifications to students to remind them about upcoming deadlines, missing documents, or improperly submitted data, and would be available 24/7 to answer student’s questions such as “Am I missing any documents for my application?” or “What’s the deadline for submitting the application fee?”.

Upon acceptance, such a bot could also streamline the introduction to campus life. After acceptance, a university “welcome bot” bot could ask the student to select an upcoming orientation to attend and provide directions to campus, and even help the student to select courses from a list of options specific to their application. Additionally, based on the student’s interests and information from their application, the bot could suggest relevant academic and social groups to get them involved in campus activities.

Important to note is the avenue through which the bot would interact with the student. While individual universities might have their own chatbot with a Natural Language Interface (NLI), a more streamlined approach would be to create a bot that worked behind the scenes and who delivered information through the students preferred NLI, such as Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. We’re currently working to develop a streamlined way for Unit4’s chatbot, Wanda, to communicate with these consumer chatbots–and others.

Virtual and or augmented reality could also play an important role here to provide students with an individualized tour of campus. Using overlaid images in the student’s smartphone camera app and guided by GPS sensors and the student’s course schedule, a bot could provide information about campus buildings the student will have class in as well as point out relevant dorms, student centers, the library and other surroundings.

(Next page: Chatbots and AI for academic progress, financial aid and graduation)

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Course Sign-up, Academic Progress, and Advisor/Advisee Relations

In a recent survey of college students, Unit4 found that the vast majority (87 percent) of students would find it useful to have an app detailing their current degree progress. A student helper bot could be just what the doctor ordered, helping to remind the student at regular intervals how close or far they are from achieving the scores they need to pass a class, how many classes are required to complete their major, or the general education requirements the student still needs to fill. If needed, the bot could also suggest courses/modules where extra credit can be attained and manage the registration process.

During class sign up, such a bot could provide up-to-date information about available classes and even suggest which courses the student should take based on their degree requirements, those suggested by an advisor, or those taught by a favorite professor. On a large campus, bots might warn students when travel time between classes could lead to issues, and suggest alternative class times or courses that would better fit into their schedules.

While a bot would by no means replace the important role an academic advisor plays in a student’s success, it could help the advisor to be more efficient, effective, and aware of their advisees’ current struggles. In addition to reminding students and advisors when it’s time for another advisor/advisee meeting–and even helping to schedule by suggesting available times in the student and advisors scheduled–a bot could also automatically monitor a student’s grades, class attendance, etc. Then, if grades or class attendance start to slip, the bot could proactively suggest to the student’s advisor that it might be time for them to reach out to the student and check in—or vice versa.

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Financial Aid

During their campus career, financial aid and scholarships are other areas where a bot’s assistance could be hugely influential. A July 2016 report from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that 20 percent of college students did not apply for any type of financial aid, even though the vast majority of students qualify for financial support of some type. This is because many students are not aware they qualify, or avoid the application process altogether due to its complexity.

Similarly to the school application process, bots could help students to identify, apply for, and stay on top of financial aid requirements by automatically contacting enrolled students that are entitled to financial aid and scholarships to advise them on what’s offered. They could also help students and parents to navigate this is process by reminding them of upcoming deadlines, missing documents, and incorrectly filed information. Once tuition, fees, and room and board are confirmed, a bot could even suggest ways in which financial aid can be apportioned and arrange payment according to the student’s wishes.

This could be valuable during the semester as well. With the end-of-semester pressures of finals and term papers, may students often miss out on scholarship and grant opportunities whose deadlines fall during the school year. At the beginning of each term, the chatbot could proactively contact the student to confirm if changes need to be made, and could even notify the student about recently announced scholarships or those they now qualify for due to a change in major or academic year.

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Graduation and Beyond

While it may not at first seem like a feature in need of chatbot assistance, keeping up-to-date personal data for a campus of thousands of students is a time-consuming and error-prone task. Students move dorms and apartments often, switch majors, and change communication preferences on a regular basis. Having a bot periodically request that students confirm their personal information can take a lot of manual data entry tasks off of office personnel, and ensure that this information is up to date and accurate.

Such information is particularly important around graduation, as alumni programs need to keep a record of the best ways to get in touch with past students. Automated bot prompts to students to ensure this information is accurate before the students leaves campus is an important aspect of a college’s future outreach programs. With this information, the bot could support continuous engagement such as alumni event registrations, alumni giving programs, or continuing education course marketing and registration.

Bringing Bots to Campus

So, when can you expect your next bursar’s assist or campus office worker to be a bot? With recent advances in predictive analytics, AI, and chatbots, the technology is there; and we could start seeing bots on campus as early as next semester.

At Unit4, we believe that there are many processes on campus where a bot could be beneficial, and we’re working on updating our chatbot, Wanda, with new skills focused on assisting students in their daily life at campus.

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