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

Iowa State University provides crucial information about the coronavirus and how it is affecting campus operations using artificial intelligence
By: | March 26, 2020
Cy the chatbot answers student and faculty questions about the coronavirus."Cy" the chatbot answers student and faculty questions about the coronavirus.

Iowa State University has embedded a higher ed chatbot named Cy into six department websites that answers student and faculty questions about the coronavirus.

“So, someone could ask the chatbot a question about how the coronavirus is affecting financial aid on the veteran center website and still receive the right information,” says Darcie Sprouse, a University Innovation Alliance fellow. “It’s one big knowledge base.”

This university chatbot from Ocelot came with 13 general questions and answers about the coronavirus in addition to the ability to create custom queries and responses.

“For example, we created a question about how the coronavirus has impacted travel or classes at Iowa State,” says Sprouse. “Ocelot crafted the questions and answers for us and then asked us to approve or edit them.”

Creating coronavirus chatbot questions

Named Cy, the coronavirus chatbot from Iowa State University answers questions about COVID-19.Each department has a coordinator on the ground level who approves department-related questions. For example, the registrar approved queries about how the coronavirus has impacted student registrations and graduation.

“Once in a while, there’s a question that covers multiple departments, which requires seeking approval from department directors,” says Sprouse. “Many questions also involve both admissions and financial aid, for example, so there are continuous communications between their leadership teams.”

After the initial approval process ended, the coronavirus chatbot team later polled staff members who weren’t initially involved to get them up to speed and to see if any questions needed to be added.

And while President Wendy Wintersteen isn’t involved, the information she includes in campuswide emails concerning the coronavirus is inputted into this higher ed chatbat to keep the language consistent.

Improving the coronavirus chatbot

Named Cy, the university chatbot from Iowa State University answers questions about the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.Sprouse updates the chatbot daily to ensure messaging is relevant. “For example, we originally customized the chatbot to say that all classes would be online from March 23 to April 3, but then I had to go back in later and change the language once the university decided to keep all courses online for the rest of the semester and, again, when our travel restrictions expanded.”

Sprouse and her team also altered some of the original language that Ocelot provided. “We wanted to make some of our responses more personal,” Sprouse says. “For example, when students asked if the coronavirus had impacted travel arrangement, the bot just said to check our campus website. So we edited the answer to say how the Iowa Board of Regents has mandated that we restrict travel and call students back from study abroad trips,” she says. “We wanted to provide more context and clarity and for it to sound more personal since it is a sensitive matter.”


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