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Would Students Prefer to Talk to a Robot When They Need Help?


Chatbots are seeing increasing utility as an administrative aid…

If you’ve ever communicated with a business via a chatbox, chances are you were actually talking to a robot. Many businesses are using artificial intelligence (AI) to answer common customer questions, and now these little algorithmically-powered assistants may be the next major technology to reshape our classrooms.

Chatbots are highly effective at streamlining any process that’s repetitive and predictable. That makes them ideal for educational institutions, which have many administrative tasks that fit this description. In fact, colleges are already employing these types of informational bots for student technical support and to aid college admittance. AI can help relieve teachers and administrators of repetitive tasks like answering admissions questions or reminding students of assignment deadlines. With only $0.21 out of every dollar actually being spent on instruction, it’s easy to see how chatbots are a welcomed solution for educational budgets that are already over-stretched.

But do students prefer to talk to robots? It’s possible that teenagers and young adults feel put off communicating with AI rather than human helpers. In which case, these personal assistants would have a fairly short lifespan in educational settings. Since there are few studies looking at student attitudes to AI in educational settings, it’s hard to say for sure. However, some recent college AI programs and market surveys around chatbots suggest that these AI bots might be vigorously welcomed by students.

GSU’s “Summer Melt” Chatbot

Georgia State University recently used an AI chatbot named “Pounce” to help incoming freshmen make the transition to college. The University wanted their chatbot to help bring down rates of “summer melt” — that percentage of students who intend to matriculate but don’t actually attend college because of missed administrative steps (e.g. financial aid, registration, enrollment).  GSU used Pounce primarily for outreach.

Like other AI variations, chatbots like Pounce are able to adjust their behaviors based on specific input. They’re able to learn over time and improve their recommendations and data accuracy. It’s called machine learning, and with it, Pounce was able to respond to students’ individual needs. For example, only students who didn’t apply for financial aid would get FAFSA submission deadline reminders or step-by-step instructions on completing the form. Over time, Pounce adjusted its recommendations based on upcoming issues.

A study of Pounce’s effectiveness showed it lowered GSU’s summer melt by 21%. The results were similar to the prior summer’s interventions that used only individual human counselors for outreach. Pounce achieved the same outcomes with far fewer human resources. Therefore, the study suggests that GSU students responded at least as positively to chatbots as they did to humans.

GSU’s summer melt results also highlight one of the major benefits of chatbots: individualized assistance. Students received information tailored to their needs at the moment. Pounce helped eliminate irrelevant information being sent to students, which can actually confuse or annoy them. For example, students who had already filled out a FAFSA didn’t receive financial aid notices.

That’s important because students who receive information they don’t need often opt out of the University’s system altogether to avoid further notices. But opting out puts them at risk when they eventually do need access to school resources, but no longer have them.

What Can Consumer Attitudes About AI Tell Us?

Most schools and businesses today have an online website for presenting basic information about schedules, phone numbers, building locations, and the like. It’s true that students aren’t consumers. But when it comes to answering basic questions, students and consumers share many of the same attitudes and frustrations with their online experience.

According to a 2018 survey on chatbots, here were the top three problems consumers have with traditional online experiences:

  • “Site is too hard to navigate” (34%)
  • “Can’t get answers to simple questions” (31%)
  • “Basic details about a business are hard to find” (28%)

All three speak to the need of finding basic information quickly — something chatbots excel at. One of the lowest priorities for the same surveyed customers was that the service “felt impersonal”. These survey results suggest that consumers care more about getting accurate, relevant information quickly, and less about who or what is giving it to them.

The survey also asked participants to predict how they would most likely use a chatbot. Unsurprisingly, the top three predictions were around speed and efficiency:

  • “Getting a quick answer in an emergency” (37%)
  • “Resolving a complaint or problem” (35%)
  • “Getting detailed answers or explanations” (35%)

All of these consumer problems with online experiences are also challenges for any educational website or student portal. It’s likely educational institutions and businesses aren’t providing the online experiences that students and consumers prefer. As more of student’s life is moved online (e.g. classes, research, enrolment), the quality of their online experiences becomes more important. Chatbots may offer the best road to delivering information and keeping students engaged.

Chatbot Benefits for Students

Chatbots offer more of what today’s students desire for their online experiences and data collection. Here are some more reasons why students would rather chat with a robot.

Students Prefer Texting

A recent study by Common Sense Media revealed that teenagers chose texting (35%) as their favorite way to communicate with their friends. Students are already accustomed to using messaging platforms and social media to communicate with friends, family, and businesses.  These online environments are natural extensions for students. So, it’s not much of a stretch to think today’s students would prefer texting a chatbot to speaking over the phone with a school staff member.

Faster Response Times

As student attention spans shorten with each generation, there’s a need to match that expectation with innovative technologies like AI. Chatbots are faster than humans at answering basic questions. Plus, they learn over time, so their response times improve and answers become even more relevant the more students use them.

24/7 Support

Chatbots offer support when students need it. Whether midnight cram sessions or long holiday weekends, new and incoming students can find help with admission, courses, or facilities. Colleges can also use bots as part of the orientation process for newly arrived students, providing information on facility locations, schedules, and hours of operations.

With all of the benefits chatbots bring students, it seems clear that they would show an affinity towards communicating with them. But that doesn’t mean AI is perfect for every aspect of a student’s life. Chatbots work best at small repetitive tasks, and much of the instructional process isn’t repetitive. It will be some time before we see bots instructing students on Shakespeare or Trigonometry.

It’s easy to see the limitations of AI by comparing consumer attitudes. In the survey, only 9% of consumers found chatbots to be useful in purchasing an “expensive product”, such as a computer or car. That’s because 30% of consumers worried the chatbot would make a mistake with their order — the higher the stakes, the lower the trust levels.

For students, their most expensive “product” is their actual education and career path. So, while students might prefer to get their library times from a chatbot, they still prefer to get their career guidance from a human counselor… just make sure to text.




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