Chatbots could be the key to delivering personalised student support

By Adam Bertelsen

Universities are constantly looking to improve the support and services that underpin their students’ experiences. But today’s students see ‘good’ or ‘personalised’ service differently to previous generations. Phoning a real person isn’t how students want to engage with any service provider – they’ve only known a world where the internet, social media and mobile technology hold all the answers. In their world, human interaction is rarely necessary to access services.

So, how do universities exploit the technology students are familiar with to deliver seamless and personalised access to services and support in the right place and at the right time? Enter the chatbot.

What is a chatbot?

Chatbots are computer programmes that can mimic human conversation and react to spoken or written prompts. People can interact with them through both text, such as on the Duolingo language app, or voice, such as Siri.

Some advanced chatbots run on complex artificial intelligence algorithms. But many only need simple instructional code to run, making them a cost-effective tool to address real pain points in student life. For example, a chatbot could answer questions when someone wants to secure a clearing place, or it could talk them through the process of accessing student services.

How are organisations using chatbots?

Chatbots are providing a more personalised experience to users across industries, from completing purchases to checking the weather. And several universities are already using chatbots to improve the student experience.

Leeds Beckett University, for example, launched a Facebook Messenger chatbot in 2017. Called Becky, it lets prospective students apply and receive offers during the clearing process. And in 2018, the university enhanced Becky by adding Amazon Alexa’s voice recognition, which let the chatbot hold 21,000 conversations with prospective students, helping 200 secure places.

Meanwhile, Staffordshire University is trialling a chatbot called Beacon that gives personalised information on student timetables, enables contact with personal tutors and provides answers to frequently asked questions. It can even flag those students who may need additional support, letting staff dedicate quality time to meet their needs. The chatbot, accessed via a mobile app, aims to build positive relationships with students.

How can more universities start using chatbots?

Our experience of developing chatbots for multiple industries has taught us it’s possible to develop them at low cost while generating benefits incredibly quickly. For example, it would take as little as two months to have an admissions chatbot up and running.

Such chatbots wouldn’t just improve the student experience, they would also unlock substantial opportunities to refocus staff across the university, moving skilled people from low value administrative tasks to high quality student-facing activities. One university we worked with believes a chatbot can answer half of student enquiries, which would save 250 hours of staff time per week.

Chatbots have the power to directly improve the student experience and free up time for staff to deliver more meaningful student support, such as face to face welfare counselling and careers’ advice. Getting the right support to develop effective chatbots will be vital to creating a competitive student experience, now and in the long term.

About the authors

Adam Bertelsen PA human centred AI expert

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