How higher ed is benefiting from chatbots during COVID-19

Jesse Boeding of UPenn discusses how colleges and universities can use AI-powered emergency technologies
By: | April 13, 2020
Chatbots in higher education can be used to help students during the COVID-19 pandemic. University Business provides some effective policies and other chatbot best practices.gettyimages.com: Oleksandr Hruts

Chatbots in higher education are being used to answer an influx of basic student questions about the coronavirus so administrators can focus on more pressing matters. “The use of chatbots allows specialized staff to spend more time with students who need help rather than fielding these calls,” says Jesse Boeding, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate who is studying how AI-powered emergency technologies can support the student experience through scaling professional staff. “No CRM will take the work off your plate like university chatbots can.”

Boeding, who was originally scheduled to present about chatbots in higher education at UB Tech® 2020, spoke to University Business about some college chatbot best practices to adopt during the coronavirus.

Aside from the coronavirus, how has higher ed used chatbots to serve students?

Chatbots are helping students receive important information in a really accessible way without them having to repeat what they need for the millionth time to staff. For example, a student can have a “conversation” with a chatbot and, if needed, be given the option to speak with a human. In these cases, the transcript of the conversation is sent to a work window of a university staff member who can review the transcript and continue the conversation without the student having to answer the same questions over and over.

How are university chatbots helping administrators and staff during COVID-19?

Most staff and senior administrators are not able to handle the influx of calls from students who have questions about COVID-19 since many of them are now in meetings all day every day about adapting college operations due to the coronavirus. Luckily, most chatbot providers have been preprograming their chatbots with basic CDC and WHO information that schools can build onto. So by inputting these basic questions and answers into the chatbot, staff can focus on other matters while the college chatbot handles these redundant questions.

What are some chatbot conversation examples?

Most likely, students aren’t asking general questions about COVID-19. They can just turn on any TV channel or check the CDC website for basic information about it. Instead, students want to know how COVID-19 is impacting them as a student. So schools need to figure out how to do more than just regurgitate basic data to them while still being specific enough in a way that will make sense. For example, many students want to know if commencement is still happening. Instead of answering with “We don’t know if commencement will happen in May,” administrators can have the university chatbot say that they are committed to letting students know if commencement will take place in May on April 15 at 5 pm. As a student, you have set my expectations with that answer so I don’t need to keep reaching out. I know I will get that information on April 15.

Is now a good time to start adopting chatbots?

This is an opportunity for someone who is not in a high-level position to monitor this technology and see the questions that students are asking. Chatbots are good temperature-takers. For example, an influx of questions can show that the language on the school website is not clear, which means the website will need to be updated. It’s important for administrators to integrate a system where someone can monitor and update these university chatbots. People are working from home and are online. So they can feed the chatbot with updated information over and over again.

This sounds very labor intensive. So it’s correct to assume that some chatbot best practices include constantly updating the knowledge of your chatbot?

Yes. If you are an adviser on campus, you are constantly learning new policies and ways of working with students. Your PD is part of you becoming a good adviser. It’s the same for a university chatbot. The question shouldn’t be “if you should nurture it,” but “how much time should be given to nurture it.”


Related: How this university uses a chatbot to answer COVID-19 questions

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Related: How AI in libraries provides answers on campus


Many chatbot providers say that every question can be asked about 196 different ways. So you have to train chatbots to answer as many forms of a question as possible. As a student, I might not know that student financial aid is known as FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. I probably refer to it as “the financial aid thing that my parents want me to fill out.” If you are seeing that students keep on asking that particular question and the chatbot isn’t able to answer it, you need to educate the chatbot so it can. If not, then the student will keep on requesting to speak with an actual person since the chatbot can’t help them. It’s like a new hire. The more you train a new hire, the more that hire won’t constantly be coming to you with questions.

For me, the ‘ah-ha” moment I want everyone to have is that college chatbots really become an effective tool when operational changes happen. Everybody will win in your organization if you do: your students, staff and stakeholders.

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