Oct 29 2020

EDUCAUSE 2020: Fueling Student Success with AI and Chatbots

At Day 2 of the conference, experts discussed how artificial intelligence can help create meaningful student connections.

Most people have experienced it at least once: that tone of disapproval in the voice of the person calling about a missed credit card payment or doctor’s appointment — or, for college students, academic coursework.

Enter chatbots and the complete objectivity with which they operate.

“One of the most powerful pieces … is that students will ask it questions they would never ask another human being, because it’s a bot,” Elizabeth Adams, associate vice president for undergraduate studies at California State University, Northridge, told online attendees at an Oct. 28 session of the EDUCAUSE 2020 Annual Conference. “They’re grateful to it for providing them the answers they need without saying, ‘You should have known that.’ It’s a place they can turn that’s judgment-free.”

With 40,000 students, many of them first-generation college students, CSUN had long relied on email as its official form of communication. However, Adams said, those emails too often went unanswered. “It’s not official if no one reads it,” she said, “no matter what it says.”

Behind the Bot Are Real Emotions and Good Intentions

At CSUN, much of the reason behind using chatbots is student success — particularly for high-risk students. “One of the things we know about our freshmen is that if they drop out after a year or two, they don’t come back, and they don’t get a degree anywhere,” Adams said. “So, the stakes for them are really high.”

Developed by AdmitHub, CSUN’s chatbot is driven by behavioral science, said company CEO Drew Magliozzi. The technology’s behavior and dialogue, he said, was directly informed by students who were asked to answer a question: If you knew someone was struggling, what would you say to help them turn things around?

“The quality of things people said was just so heartwarming,” Magliozzi said.

As a faculty member herself, Adams has seen the chatbot’s effectiveness firsthand. Last fall, she said, all it took was one nudge from the chatbot to motivate an at-risk student to change a behavior — frequently missing tests — that was proving detrimental to her academic performance.

“Students don’t mind the bot,” she says. “They actually listen to the bot. These are people who are really capable of being excellent students. We have to come up with ways to make them feel supported.”

READ MORE: How are higher education thought leaders defining and illustrating digital transformation?

With Chatbots, a Layered Approach is Key to Student Success

One of the greatest benefits of the technology, Adams says, is that it is student-centered and focuses on reaching out to students where they are and in a format they’re comfortable with. “Engaging with students and understanding where they are and what they need rather than assuming you know how to communicate with them is critical,” she explained. “We can’t keep assuming they’ll come to us.”

Part of CSUN’s chatbot success, Adams said, could be attributed to the layered approach the school has taken to implementing and deploying the technology. “It’s not any single piece by itself that’s going to take a student at risk and get them across the finish line. It’s all the things together.” The bot has even shaped how people in Adams’ department communicate with each other, driving them at times to adopt the more casual tone established by the chatbot rather than a more institutional, buttoned-up tone.

Magliozzi said he’d like to see the technology advance to a point where, instead of alerting students to potential failures or shortcomings, it can guide them to the next step for success. “It’s a more complex problem to address,” he says, “but that’s the hope I have for where this technology will go.”

Find our complete coverage of EDUCAUSE 2020, including more interviews and advice from higher ed experts, here

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