CSU Symposium: Conversational AI and student success

Evan Scarlett  |  November 19, 2018

On a panel called “The Power of Artificial Intelligence” at Cal State’s Graduation Initiative 2025 Symposium, our CEO Drew Magliozzi spoke alongside several campus leaders about artificial intelligence’s impact on retention, summer melt,  and holistic student support from enrollment to graduation. Placing an emphasis on AI as a listening tool, the panel discussed how AI is keeping students connected to their institutions and the resources that matter most through 24/7 on-demand assistance.

Panel Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=AM3rTTgLno8

Moderator Michael Berman defined artificial intelligence in a general context as using machines to do the types of things humans are expected to do. When applied to Higher Ed institutions, he gave the example of a school-specific chatbot answer a student’s question that would traditionally require a phone call to the admissions office. Berman went on to incorporate another concept, machine learning, to address how machines are able to get smarter over time with software that improves as it collects data.

college-students-on-phones

Artificial Intelligence: Using Machines to do tasks that are traditionally associated with humans.

Machine Learning: Software that can be trained so its performance on tasks improves over time.

While the possibilities for AI on campuses are vast - it can be used as a virtual tutor, to grade exams and essays, or even for predictive analysis to understand a student’s academic progress - the panel focused on the impact conversational AI (also know as chatbots or NLP virtual assistants) has on guiding students through college. Specifically they highlighted how conversational AI and machine learning is enhancing the ways we can support students by presenting a better way to reach them and learn from them.

The more students use these platforms, the more data colleges can collect about the questions students are asking as well as how and when they are asking them. Over time, institutions can leverage this conversational data to predict student behavior and trends in order to proactively help students tackle small problems become they become bigger ones. As more schools adopt AI technology to collect data it becomes easier to bring overarching trends to light and prediction how to effectively intervene and support students early on. 

During the panel Magliozzi called Admithub's technology a "platform for listening at scale" rather than a platform for broadcasting information. "We don’t think of ourselves as a text messaging platform or even a chatbot. We build a conversational strategy to help students change their behavior and make it easier for students to get help than avoid it.”

 

Meet  Them Where They Are: "It’s simple, it's just texting."

One of the most compelling soundbites from the panel came from Elizabeth Adams, AVP of Undergraduate Studies at CSU-Northridge. She talked about how email is ‘the official communication channel’ of CSU-Northridge but went on to ask, “...but so what? That doesn’t matter if students aren’t checking it….We have a tendency to build systems that we think are good. We have to stop building stuff that we like, and we need to start building stuff where students will hear us.”

When elaborating on the communication platform she built for CSUN, Adams said, “It’s simple. It’s just texting. Texting is something students like - they spend all day doing it, it’s a really easy way to communicate. Students don’t like picking up the phone, or looking on websites, or checking emails. But texting doesn’t seem intrusive, they can ignore it if they don’t want to engage.”

Reaching students where they are is crucial. Smartphones are their official communication channel - it’s where students are spending most of their time, which makes it an essential resource to utilize.

 

Eliminate the Fear of Asking

Conversational AI doesn’t just meet students where they are, it also allows students to communicate more comfortably. One of the biggest barriers to student success is often the fear of asking. “Students don’t know what to ask, or who to ask,” Adams explained. “They’re embarrassed because they think they are supposed to already know,” but in reality students have every right to be confused throughout the journey."

Chatbots ease students’ fears by allowing them to direct difficult questions through their preferred platform and towards a ‘listener’ that won’t judge them. Chatbots pave a path of least resistance for students by allowing them to find the answers they care about right when they need them. Easy answers then cultivate more, better questions.

 

Listen Early

When speaking to the implementation process of ‘CSUNny’ (pronounced ‘sunny’), Adams stressed the importance of launching despite an imperfect knowledge base. Even after a thorough scan of CSU-Northridge’s websites, one-pagers, and other FAQs, the University was thoroughly unprepared for many of the questions students asked the bot - and that was okay. Only by launching did Elizabeth and her team really get a chance to listen, learn, and ultimately build the platform they hoped for.

Bringing CSUNny to life was the first step towards putting a finger on the pulse of Northridge’s students to learn what was most important to them and understand exactly how students might pose these questions in the first place. They were by the amount of students wanting to know how far the nearest Chipotle was, but soon enough CSUNny had an answer for that alongside bigger questions like ‘what is the FAFSA’.

 

You Have To Speak Their Language

Artificial intelligence allowed CSU-Northridge to scale conversational communication, which is an critical means of building students’ trust. During the panel Drew called the beginning of these threads with students ‘blind date’ territory. In these instances you need to build a connection by asking questions, but the tone of this outreach is just as important as the content. Adding fun, engaging, and somewhat frivolous content into the conversation can be just as influential because it keeps things fun and light.

There are quite a few transactional steps students need to take to and through college. Chatbots can be used to flag when students might need a nudge or some help, but it’s just as important to communicate beyond these touchpoints to build a relationship.

“So much we focus on the things students must do to succeed but forget to celebrate the moments where they have done the good work,” Drew pointed out, “and doing so makes them that much more likely to respond and pay attention the next time you reach out.” When a bot congratulates a student for completing a certain task, perhaps including a fun GIF or emoji within this outreach, it helps create a sense of belonging, generates a feeling of goodwill with their university, and gets students excited to communicate to the bot in the future.

For more on how schools are breaking down communication barriers using conversational AI to enhance the student experience, check out the entire panel conversation here.



Topics: artificial intelligence

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