Artificial intelligence is evolving quickly and is becoming more accessible to businesses and academic institutions alike. Increasingly, universities are embracing AI to streamline their interactions with -- and meet the expectations of -- their digitally active students.
Chatbots form part of this wave of AI transformation. In addition to admissions software, universities are using them as a complimentary tool to provide instant answers to queries in a world where response time can really make a difference....And they are here to stay!
Research by Gartner predicts that 25% of customer service and support operations will integrate virtual customer assistant or chatbot technology across engagement channels by 2020, up from less that 2% in 2017.
Photo credit: Paul Hanaoka.
From ordering takeaways to checking in for flights, chatbots are becoming intrinsic to the way we live our everyday lives.
But before we dive any deeper into the benefits of chatbots in the context of higher ed, let’s definite what one is.
According to the OED, a chatbot is “a computer program designed to stimulate conversation with human users, especially over the internet.” The messaging apps that are commonly used as a vehicle for chatbots include, Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype and Whatsapp.
A chatbot is an automated method of communication
One of the reasons chatbots are becoming so popular is because they save time. Bots can respond to enquiries and queries instantly; they increase customer satisfaction, thus making it more likely that a lead turns to a sale (or in the context of higher ed, a acceptance to an enrolment).
Of course, chatbots can never properly replicate the value of real human interaction, but more on that later.
Why and how are universities using chatbots?
For any college or university, swift communication is crucial when it comes to converting prospective applicants into enrolled students.
In the lead up to the start of a new academic year candidates are buzzing with questions relating to courses, fees, accommodation and the like. It's undoubtedly a busy time for admissions departments, and responding to this influx of questions quickly requires a lot of time and resource.
Essentially, chatbots provide an antidote to this problem. They are incredibly convenient, easy to use and are designed to provide automated responses to common questions, avoiding ambiguity and delayed replies.
Students can chat with them for free at any time of the day or night, which is of particular benefit to international candidates living in different time zones.
AI bots serve another purpose too. Over the duration of their interactions with candidates and students, they gather large amounts of data. This data contains helpful information about student behaviour relating to information that they can (or can’t) find on a university’s website, making them a useful tool for reflection and improvement, and a valuable asset for marketing teams as well as admissions teams.
Let’s take a look at how one university is using chatbots to boost their ‘acceptance to enrolment’ ratios in order to conquer the ‘summer melt’ - the period of time before the academic year starts when some students who have been accepted drop out and fail to enrol.
When Georgia State University (GSU) found that their summer melt rates had increased from 12% to almost 19%, they looked to chatbot technology to do something about it. GSU deployed a chatbot referred to as a ‘campus coach’. What resulted was an embodiment of the institution’s collective knowledge. The bot was even able to capture the spirit of the school’s community.
A tried and tested success
To see whether this new technology would actually make a difference to enrolment rates, GSU launched virtual assistant ‘Pounce’ as part of a randomised control trial.
The control group received the university’s standard email and snail mail communications and the treatment group received reminders, information and surveys from the chatbot via text messages on their mobile phones.
The chatbot also responded to a number of practical and logistical questions relating to specific enrolment tasks, including:
When is my tuition fee due?
How to I submit my ACT scores?
Which parent do I use on FAFSA?
More than 50,000 messages were received during the trial and of that number, less than 1% required a staff member response. By the end of the trial, Pounce exchanged almost 200,000 messages with students in the treatment group. Ten additional full-time staff members would have been needed without it, according to Scott Burke, assistant VP of undergraduate admissions at GSU.
In a statement about the experiment, Burke said:
“As a result of the success of last season’s trial, we are not only continuing our use of Pounce this year, but also expanding its role to include several new initiatives focused on enrolment and success.”
Chatbots aren't just used in conjunction with admissions software to aid admissions -- universities are deploying them to assist students with their academic studies and campus life in general.
Take Staffordshire University, for instance. As part of their Digital Vision, they have introduced a chatbot called "Beacon" to act as a digital coach for students. Using AI technology, Beacon provides personalised and responsive information relating to timetables as well as answers to 400 FAQs.
Beacon also enables contact with tutors, creating a space for quicker and more effective communication. Sue Reece, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience), explains:
“The new app will help us to build positive relationships with our students and even flag up those who may need additional support, so that we can better cater for their needs. Ultimately, we want Beacon to help us to provide students with the best possible experience.”
Of course, in industries like higher ed, there will always be a need for human interaction and correspondence. Many of the questions students ask require the kind of nuanced response that technology, no matter how fine-tuned, just cannot provide.
Similarly, chatbots lack empathy and therefore the ability to forge the human bonds that are so vital when it comes to learning and wellbeing in higher education. As with many things in life, a blended, balanced approach probably the best way forward.
To join the conversation, chat with us on Twitter @fullfabric.
FULL FABRIC integrates with chatbot tools like Intercom and Zendesk to compliment the admissions suite.
To find out more about how to integrate chatbot technology with your admissions software, get in touch with us today - we’re also happy to chat in real life!