How AI can add the human touch that today’s college students need

At Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, we recently introduced a new student success platform fronted by a digital avatar we call Pistol Pete. At the Antelope Valley campus of Cal State Bakersfield, we are hopeful that our chatbot technology will help more students transfer successfully to four-year public institutions.
Ina Agnew & Elizabeth Adams
Ina Agnew & Elizabeth Adams
Dr. Ina Agnew is the vice president of Student Services at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology. Dr. Elizabeth Adams is the dean of the Antelope Valley Center at California State University, Bakersfield.

Based on the media headlines and campus conversations, AI seems to be about the only thing faculty and staff are talking about. Though ChatGPT has been out for only a little more than a year, some professors have already adopted generative AI programs into their courses. Other faculty members are scrambling to AI-proof their classrooms to prevent students from using this technology to cheat. Administrators, meanwhile, are wondering how they can harness AI’s power to benefit their organizations without damaging them.

This ambivalence is understandable. AI is transformative, yet its implications are not yet well understood either inside or outside the classroom. And AI represents a threat to the livelihoods of our colleagues: On lists of occupations with the highest odds of being replaced by AI, teachers commonly appear.

But the fear and uncertainty around AI doesn’t square with everything we’re seeing on our campuses. As it turns out, some AI-powered tools are making a meaningful impact on students and helping institutions foster a sense of community and belonging. AI is helping us help our students in ways that feel much more human than skeptics of this new technology might have thought possible.

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In recent years, both of our institutions have turned to AI chatbots to solve challenges with student communication. We’re hardly alone: This technology is increasingly becoming a valuable and versatile part of comprehensive access, retention and equity strategies. For most institutions, AI chatbots assist with the practical elements of work around admissions, registration, student support and other quotidian campus functions. What has surprised us along the way is how these chatbots have also helped us address our students’ emotional needs.

Chatbots are well-known for effectively reaching students where they are — by text message, in other words, because they rarely check email — and guiding them through institutional bureaucracy to get the answers they need. But the best chatbots also incorporate a human touch that manages to be engaging and empathetic. These qualities make students actually want to talk to the bot. The students we hear from say AI chatbots communicate with them without judgment.

That’s critically important to today’s always-online college students, who are not just used to constant judgment from social media, but also – particularly for first-generation students – often don’t know where to go to ask for help. By giving students a private and judgment-free space to ask questions that keeps them from having to navigate institutional bureaucracy, colleges can make it easier and less stressful for students to find the information they’re seeking. When students turn to chatbots for routine queries, institutional staff are then freed up to prioritize more intensive student outreach efforts. That makes humans more effective at doing what they do best, which is to dig into complex problems. That’s what happens when students ask the chatbots tough questions as they sometimes do. The apps can flag difficult conversations so staff can provide appropriate human intervention.

At Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, we recently introduced a new student success platform fronted by a digital avatar we call Pistol Pete. This digital cowboy, a nod to Oklahoma State University’s mascot, is an AI chatbot developed by Mainstay and a cornerstone of our efforts to recruit and retain students. Pistol Pete sends out text reminders of upcoming events and important dates. He checks in with students about their health and well-being. And he answers students questions about classes, on- and off-campus resources and any other issues that might be on their mind.

The chatbot has been effective. It contributed to a 3.5% increase in semester credit hours at OSUIT last fall. Anecdotally, we see evidence that our students respond to their digital guide with empathy and humanity. According to the chat logs, students thank Pistol Pete for his help and tell him how much they appreciate what he’s doing for them. In a few instances, students told the chatbot they didn’t know who else to talk to.

Several California State University System institutions, meanwhile, are using similar chatbots also to reduce summer melt, the higher ed phenomenon in which students commit to an institution in the spring but don’t show up on campus the following fall. A randomized trial at one Cal State campus found compelling evidence that the chatbot improved retention, especially among first-generation students who, before and after their initial fall term, often face a steep learning curve as they navigate unfamiliar institutional practices and offices.

At the Antelope Valley campus of Cal State Bakersfield, we recently began working with community college students in geographically isolated regions. By using chatbot technology to reach them early in their academic journey, we can help guide them toward completion. We are hopeful that this technology will help more students transfer successfully to four-year public institutions.

Institutions prefer to measure returns on investment in terms of revenue received or savings realized. But traditional metrics cannot capture the decreased stress levels and improved performance of students who get the exact guidance they need exactly when they need it. More Americans are capable of earning college degrees and climbing the ladder of economic mobility if they simply have a guide to the complexities of the campus experience. AI can be more than just a tool that saves money or staff time. It can help institutions nurture students so they can reach their academic goals. That approach can be priceless.


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