Monday, December 9

Unleash the Chatbots! AI for Retention

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by Gordon Freedman

“Once I realized how big of a problem student retention is in the US, ignoring it and not attempting to solve it was not an option for me.” —Claudia Recchi, CEO and co-founder, EdSights 

What follows is an intriguing look at a technology being developed by recent graduates focused on the very problem they identified and struggled with as undergrads.

It is clear that there is a problem on campus with direct communication between students and an array of services they may not know about, or may not know them. This problem isn’t being addressed by common campus technology.

For a sister duo originally from Rome, Claudia and Carolina Recchi, who encountered many daily information obstacles in the American universities they attended, it became an act of technology and big data faith to “craft” a solution that addressed how young people operate—and also how campuses are trying to reach and retain students, but not sufficiently succeeding.

The result, EdSights, is a start-up with a mission to provide an AI-enhanced direct digital lifeline between students and various aspects of the campus. At its core, EdSights runs an AI-powered Chatbot that is constantly interacting with students based on their data and their interactions.

“Have you seen your academic advisor yet?” the Chatbot might ask. Or, “Do you feel like you belong at your university?” Students are answering, and at high rates. Chat is in their wheelhouse, where the campus systems and offices might not be.

“Part of our job is to be that intermediary between students and universities,” says EdSights co-founder Carolina Recchi. “We collect information from students by engaging them over text messaging and translate it into something that is useful and actionable for the university”.

Student texting chat bot

How Does it Work?

The text message chatbot engages with students throughout the year and asks them questions about their college experience. When it determines that students could use specific help, it connects them to corresponding on-campus resources, like the financial aid office or the career center. While it engages with thousands of students, the chatbot simultaneously clusters students who share common struggles and brings them to the attention of university staff. When appropriate, it also suggests specific next steps that administrators can take to help students overcome these struggles.

Background

Growing up in their native Rome, Claudia and Carolina had dreams of studying in the U.S. Carolina had an interest in big data, and Claudia in high tech. Carolina received a BA in business from Babson. Claudia received her degree in statistics and information systems from Georgetown.

“Because we come from a different country, we viewed U.S. higher education as outsiders. Our college experience was our first time living in the US, so there were a lot of things that we were not accustomed to,” Carolina explains.

Their encounter with U.S. higher ed raised many questions and motivated their quest to build a student lifeline that was dialogue-based and understood what students encounter on campus. They started with a free campus app to facilitate feedback to faculty called ClassPulse. It scaled so quickly, they realized there was a market for a larger solution that wrote the student directly into the campus context, outside of the bureaucratic maze and big campus tech.

“It became apparent to us that while colleges were investing so much in student support resources, students were not really given a voice, and reaching out to the right people for help at school was surprisingly intimidating and hard,” says Carolina.

The Grand Campus-Student Disconnect

They wondered, where is the counterpart to the apps that predominate in consumer commerce, social media, and modern employment? Could there be a solution, or a new class of solutions, that are modern, simple, and elegant in uniting student and campus, based on Chatbot dialogue?

Student are quite different than they were when most faculty and administrators started their careers. With every passing month, information, social interactions, and apps’ culture puts a greater distance between the formal campus bureaucracy and young adults and working adults.

This chasm, the one campus administrations call retention, could actually be seen as a tension between the culture, lives and expectations of students who are dynamic and fluid, and the traditional campus structure that is organized into separate departments.

  • Administrative departments and academic programs are largely separate silos that may be better organized today than a decade ago, but they not modern by outside standards.
  • There may be an excess of hubris, or a lack of reflection, in how campuses operate and what they expect from student behavior on campus and online.

Students are often the last people to be considered in the equation of how campuses operate. It’s surprising that they are not the first consideration. This may be a case of technology over-build. Programmatic and departmental offices and large campus technology systems are far from being student user-friendly.

Too Big, Too Out of Touch?

One early campus adopter chose to test EdSights because they felt their campus was not being heard in the ed tech world at large.

“There are so many companies now vying for the higher education technology space. The companies attempt to be all things for higher education—in one package,” says Bernard Franklin, Ph.D., Vice President for Student Life, Mount St. Mary’s University.

“Our university has had many different platforms to perform very different functions. But those platforms were not talking to each other.”

The missing link for the Recchi sisters was a question that is rarely on the minds of campus administrators: “Do we have a primary line of communication with our students?” And, if this question is even asked, it is followed by, “Who would be the rightful owner of that dialog on campus be?”

The technology solutions used by campuses are largely niche software designed to fortify and reinforce the already hugely isolated administrative silos. Campuses are bureaucracies. Each department—whether it is academic, registrar, advising, career counseling, student services, student success, food service, housing—are separate fiefdoms. Each has its own technology or data systems. There are few solutions that can bridge these gaps for students, or provide feedback from the students to the multiple campus departments.

Missouri Western State University was looking for a way to more deeply engage with their students in real time.

“From my experience, most retention solutions employ more of a big data approach, analyzing years of institutional data to build predictive models for each student. While I definitely see the benefit of that method,” says Dr. Paul Orscheln, Associate Vice President, Enrollment Management and Retention at Missouri Western State University.

“I believe assessing a student’s risk levels in real-time and directly involving them in the conversation is a much more personal and relevant way to identify what exactly they are struggling with right now, and to provide immediate interventions.”

Spyware Versus Student Dialogue

For most modern, non-education, solutions on the web and in apps, the user is in a front row seat. Whereas, the technology and data solutions on campus are simply the outgrowth of early technology or even paper and pen systems that belong to each office or department. Examples: The Registrar’s Office (now the student information system, SIS), the classroom and program schedule, assignments and grades (now the learning management system, LMS), and academic advising and career counseling (now in customer relationship management solutions, CRM) are large-scale solutions, not oriented to the student. These systems are not about dialogue, they are central campus control systems.

To get a picture of what is happening with student success monitoring, there is a class of student success solutions that sits on top of the already cumbersome academic tech silos. The student success office does not really cut across the campus functions to get directly to students. Rather, it draws from the student information (SIS) and learning management solutions (LMS) and simply reports on classroom attendance, grades, and academic engagement indicators.

“Those solutions are largely focused on grades, assignments and attendance and not the non-cognitive dimensions of student life,” says Claudia Recchi.

A more radical interpretation would look at student success solutions as a form of institutional spyware that picks up the student data trail and reports it to faculty and administrators and then creates a range of nudges, dashboards, and warnings for students. This is not a back-and-forth with each individual student that would give those students a sense of belonging, and the campus direct knowledge of students’ needs.

It is data analysis minus the actual student interaction – student at a distance.

Verifying the Approach

Education technologies come and go. Some stay longer. Few are rooted in research.

“Before we had our own data to analyze we had to look at existing student success and retention research to really understand which areas to ask students questions on,” says Carolina. “We had to research which questions are most predictive of student success and retention, and what micro barriers impact a student’s ability to succeed.”

They turned a veteran researcher. One look at Vincent Tinto’s Google Scholar page will convince the most jaded of a serious academic who has spent a long career deeply analyzing persistence and retention and the drivers that make students stay or go. While Claudia and Carolina were perfecting their Chatbot’s algorithms, Carolina wanted to square what they were doing in technology with an expert who knew the behavioral data.

Tinto agreed to meet and confirmed that their Chatbot could be a “sustainable and scalable way to hear the voices of the students.”

The first campuses using EdSights like what they are seeing. Missouri Western State discusses their experience in a recent Edsights’ Case Study.

“Having access to the EdSights data allowed our University Experience program to rapidly identify students who were struggling to connect to the University. Once identified we were able to reach out to those students on a personal level from a variety of directions,” says Dr. Mike Ducey Chair, First Year Experience.

What’s in a Name

Everyone agrees, personalization is what is needed on campus, at every level. Of course, the campus can name their Edsights’ Chatbot, hold a naming contest, or simply go with their campus mascot.

Look out for Dom the EagleWOWzer the WildcatBoomer the BulldogBobby the Bearcat and Gus the Gorilla or whatever Chatbot might show up on a campus near you.


About the author

Gordon Freedman is President of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation (www.NLET.org), a California-based 501(c)(3) non-profit committed to transforming 20th century education into 21st century learning and workforce development. Freedman also manages Knowledge Base, LLC, a consulting firm established in 1998 to provide services to institutions, publishers and education technology companies. Freedman formerly served as Vice President Global Education Strategy, Blackboard Inc, during its growth from 100 million dollar in annual revenue to an exit at 1.4 billion dollars. During his tenure, Freedman traveled to 19 countries examining learning models and policy strategies, launched the Blackboard Institute and provided thought leadership for the company globally.

Sources

Click here for an interview with Dr. Paul Orscheln, Associate Vice President, Enrollment Management and Retention at Missouri Western State University.

Click here for interview with Edsights’ CEO & co-founder Claudia Recchi.

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