Leveraging AI to engage with college students.
Two leaders in higher ed student support share their insight
Over the past few years, spurred on in part by the pandemic, college administrators have been increasingly turning to AI as a way to reach and engage with different student populations. For some, the words “artificial intelligence” (AI) conjure images of the Terminator movies and machines taking over. But for schools looking for another tool for reaching students where they’re at, AI has proven to be a significant help. One study showed that over 89 percent of student users at one institution advocated for AI chatbot technology to be made permanent at their university.
Meet the experts — and real-life AI users
During our recent End-User Summit, two university leaders shared their insights on the use of AI at their schools. We asked a series of AI-themed questions, including questions from the audience. Here are their takeaways.
Shantell Thompson is the Executive Director of Special Programs and University Ombudsman at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida,
Gregory McElveen is the Assistant to Provost and Director, Career Pathways Initiative and Office of Customized Training at Fayetteville State University in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
How have you used technology to help your faculty and staff better support your students?
“We have relied heavily on technology to reach our students. Trying to keep them engaged is not easy. So faculty and staff have really been looking to us to come up with some innovative ways to help engagement.” One of the ways Bethune-Cookman does that is via text message and reminders from Ana, the Upswing chatbot backed by a team of human specialists. “Ana gets the message to the students and with just one simple swipe, they’re able to get information and connect to services. Faculty are very appreciative of that because they get responses from the students.”
“We’ve done a lot to try to empower our faculty to better use technology to connect with students, including faculty development and training for the provided tools. We use a technology called adapted learning which is kind of AI based. Through specialized courseware, students answer a series of questions, then based on their answers, they receive various materials — to catch them up if they’re behind or accelerate them if they’re well-versed in the material.”
What insights have you discovered through leveraging AI in your student support services?
“Technology is definitely a way that Bethune-Cookman is using to help our students succeed. Virtual advising, electronic degree audit, early alert systems, virtual tutoring, text messaging, tracking and report are all so important to our student success and retention.” She notes that Upswing is part of the technology they use for their retention plan, and they’re able to track a variety of information through the system. “We found that more than three-quarters of our students took the necessary action after receiving a message from Ana — far more than we’ve been getting in the two years prior.” She goes on to say “With the technology, students are feeling supported and more connected to the university. They’re staying in touch.”
“Technology is an enabler, but it’s only effective if it’s followed up with individual contact with a real person. It works best when the faculty are involved and not taking a hands-off approach.” Fayetteville State also uses the Ana chatbot and Gregory notes that “It’s interesting how AI is becoming more pervasive. In career services, we have automated services that help generate resumes and helps assess presentations. We’re trying to use these tools to help scale student support when students are not on campus. But for any of these technologies, they’re best used when in collaboration with and conjunction with a real person’s interaction.”
What are you hoping that technology/AI can do in the near future to better support your students and staff?
“This generation is all about delivery. If you don’t come with the information in a way in which students can understand and be engaged, they won’t even hear the message.” But for faculty and staff, she reminds herself, this technology is all new. “So having tutorials that teach faculty and staff how to utilize the technology the school has available is so important.”
“It would be useful to have more administrative tools available, tools that help faculty and staff understand what students are asking about in the chat bot. What are the issues that are really important that students are asking about this week? Which responses seem to be answering their questions and which responses aren’t?”
What departments collaborate with Upswing on the Ana platform or other AI services you use?
“We work with Upswing and Ana on our virtual tutoring, and will hopefully be diving into the advising piece soon. We also have our English department working with them for the writing lab. And we’ve seen a great response from the students and the faculty.”
“We have an enrollment management executive committee, which is a cross-functional team that includes admissions, financial aid, advisement and student success. When there are messages that need to go out, they’re discussed among the members of that team and then incorporated into text messages through Upswing.”
What’s your primary goal for leveraging AI to engage with students?
“We’re finding that we need to get parents more involved, because the students aren’t apprehensive about using any of the tools we give them, the technology. But the parents are calling us to find out ‘Why do they have to go to a virtual tutor? Why can’t they have a tutor there?’ Because our resources are limited, that’s why.” She explains that using virtual tutoring also allows students to get the help they need after hours, on their schedule. “In the evening, we’re off, we’re home tucked away and students are still getting tutoring. How cool is that?”
“Our goal is to help students have a more successful and engaging experience at the university. One of the things we see AI doing is helping to customize the experience to keep it relevant, so students see how we are responding to their specific needs and listening actively, then doing something about it when they tell us they have a need or a question.” He notes that AI can also eliminate some basic tasks for faculty and staff, reducing their workload and giving them more time for specific issues that require their assistance.
Do you see any apprehension among students using AI to help solve their issues?
“Students are now realizing that this platform holds you accountable to what it is you’re supposed to be doing. It tracks your time and how long you’ve accessed something.”
“No, I wouldn’t say apprehension. We make sure they know that the technology isn’t there to solve all the problems, but it’s got a very specific purpose. We did a survey of students who participated in one of our adaptive learning courses. The students actually noted that it took more time, but they were okay with that because it improved their comprehension. We just need to work on the right messaging.”
Additional takeaways from the breakout rooms
During the course of the online session, student support participants from all over the country were put into breakout rooms to discuss the topic of using technology in general and AI specifically to help students. Here are some of the takeaways from those sessions:
- Younger students are very tech savvy and quickly embrace AI — they want that instant gratification. Adult learners and older students need more help and convincing to fully adopt AI, whether it’s text message assistance like Ana or other support services. With this group, there is some apprehension.
- A really useful technology doesn’t need to have all the bells and whistles, as long as it provides a solid place to start and serves the needs of the users.
- AI isn’t here to take over, it’s something we can use as a tool, hand-in-hand with personal interactions and support.
- User-friendliness is very important and the usability of any tool should be measured from the perspective of the student.
- While younger students are experts with smart phones, they need help when the technology is on a desktop computer. So the focus there needs to be on making things as simple as possible.