Digital employees, or chatbots, are helping colleges and universities more efficiently serve their students

4 tips to use chatbots to improve student success


Digital employees, or chatbots, are helping colleges and universities more efficiently serve their students

Most of us have encountered chatbots on websites we visit in order to shop, pay a bill, manage our bank accounts, schedule an appointment, figure out why the WiFi isn’t working, or in other online interactions. They pop up on the side of the screen, introduce themselves, and ask how they can help. Other times, once you select “Contact Us,” one of the options presented is a “chat” option.

A chatbot is a messaging application that uses artificial intelligence. It is programmed to understand language, process data, and mimic a conversation through a messaging or chat interface. Chatbots are limited in their scope and application but are intelligent enough to reply to text commands and questions about specific topics. Chatbots are becoming a common feature on college and university websites, and their presence and the assistance they can provide can contribute to student success and retention.

“AI-powered chatbots allow universities to serve students 24/7 with continuous support, while keeping students and staff productive,” said David Karandish, CEO of Capacity. “Rather than emailing the professor or setting up an appointment with the teaching assistant, students can get their questions answered in seconds. Chatbots can also automate repetitive existing processes that consume a faculty member’s time. If a student needs to find a tutor for a certain course or ask how many credits they need, they can simply ask the chatbot.”

Chatbots are not one-size-fits-all, but instead are highly customizable and can be tailored to each institution’s needs, Karandish says. As an example, “within a university, each department can add and manage their own FAQs so information is always up-to-date. AI-powered chatbots continuously learn and grow, and get more accurate with time.”

Maryville University in St. Louis, MO, first “hired” a chatbot in 2019. The university’s online program has been growing at an impressive rate. To keep up with demand and ensure a topnotch experience for its students, Maryville’s leadership decided to introduce “digital employees”–chatbots–into workstreams. The university’s first digital employee was Max.

“It is important to note we refer to them as ‘digital employees’ as the functionality and sophistication exceeds that of a typical chatbot,” explained Dr. Mark Lombadi, Maryville University’s president. “We know students expect and need excellent service so one of the goals was to scale our student service to keep pace with our rapid growth. Our philosophy is everything inside the classroom should be challenging but everything outside the classroom should be easy. We aim to make sure students have access to what they need 24/7/365 through multiple channels and from any device. The goal was for Max (our digital employee) to be on the front lines to answer common questions and then escalate any issues that needed more personalized attention to human staff.”

Maryville University initially made Max available in its online orientation for new adult undergraduates. “The idea was to engage these students before they started their first course and answer any questions they might have. The process of applying, getting accepted, financial aid, and registering for classes can be complicated. The early goal was to be able to provide basic information and direction 24/7,” said Lombardi.

Then came an unexpected test for this new initiative: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve definitely seen an increased use of chatbots within the last year,” said Karandish. “The pandemic shut things down physically and, as a result, forced institutions to adopt new tools and technologies for remote operations. Many organizations, including educational institutions, experienced a surge of inquiries. Within education, students and parents had far more questions and were looking for immediate answers. Chatbots aren’t a new trend. They just saw a vast acceleration in adoption due to the pandemic.”

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t affect the initial project at Maryville, according to Lombardi. “However, we deployed a separate digital employee on our COVID information site, SaintStrong. It was specifically designed to help users find the latest information in a rapidly changing situation,” he said.

Karandish sees the adoption of chatbots to be something that will continue to grow in higher education. “Many institutions are adopting chatbots to attract, engage, and retain students. In the future, more institutions will adopt support automation platforms, like Capacity, to connect to their entire tech stack to answer questions, automate repetitive tasks, and assemble solutions to business challenges,” he said. “Chatbots enable institutions to deliver higher quality services at a lower cost while improving student outcomes.”

President Lombardi is pleased with the performance of his digital employees and expects to continue to use and grow their applications for Marysville University.

“It’s living up to expectations and performing well. Eighty percent of the questions asked are answered by the digital employee,” he said. “Of the remaining 20 percent, the majority are questions that are specific to the student’s individual situation and require more personalized attention and Max escalates those through a help ticket/case. The remaining inquiries are considered knowledge gaps that we are teaching Max as we go.” He added that the goal is to complement phone and email touchpoints and meet the students where they are and, equally as important, when they want a response. “Max has given us a chance to engage students that might not want to talk on the phone or wait for an email reply,” he said.

Lombardi offers this advice to other institutions that may be considering initiating the use of chatbots to automate inquiries and processes:

Start small and let the feedback guide your efforts. Don’t get stuck feeling like you need to distill all of the institutional knowledge into the digital employee or anticipate every possible question. Start with basic knowledge and let the users dictate where to expand it.

“Context is key. This ties into the first point; where you deploy the digital employee usually dictates the types of questions that will be asked. Deploying it in our LMS, the questions skewed more toward technical help, course material, and how-to questions. When we launched in our Self Service application, this changed to questions about financial aid, course registration, and degree planning. Consider launching several digital employees that contain specific knowledge that will enhance the engagement around a subject area.

“Plan for success. This isn’t a ‘set it and forget’ it endeavor. Information is always changing and needs to be built upon and refined. Recognize that you will need humans to monitor feedback, build out functionality, and maintain the content.

“Manage expectations. Let users know the digital employee is learning and engage them for help in making a better experience. Build in discreet opportunities to provide feedback on responses, a quick thumbs up or down. The goal is to build a valuable resource and it’s an iterative process.”

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Shannon O'Connor, Editor at Large, eCampus News
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