Chatbots for First-Year Student Success

I’ve been thinking a lot about our non-traditional students at Washington State University, especially since seeing Marcia Devlin’s excellent presentation on this demographic at DLRN. Broadly, what the research says is that the students who do best in college are not the brightest and the most creative, but the students that know “How to College”.

You see this all the time when you start looking for it. A while back I got into a conversation about textbooks with a person who said no student in their right mind really paid full price for textbooks. When pressed on how he had saved money on textbooks in college two things came to mind. First, his parents had told him how to shop around. Second, his dorm buddies had told him how to save money by renting, etc.

Last week, my daughter (a high school student taking her first college classes) was looking at her course syllabus, and had a bit of a panic. The syllabus said the final was on Wednesday, but it didn’t say the time. Had she forgotten to write it down in class? I explained, no, the way it works is that the whole university has a single finals schedule based on the normal meeting time of the class. Just look on the schedule and find when MWF 10 a.m. classes are having their final.

But what if she was first generation? Would she have shown up to the final at the right time? What if textbook guy didn’t have his dorm buddies to steer him through the intricacies of college textbooks?

One thing that stuck with me from Marcia’s presentation was that the people who need the help are often the people least likely to ask for it, because they are afraid asking a stupid question will mark them an outsider. So you have a set of students who know How to College, and often are quite aggressive with getting their question answered. And then you have students that really need the answers who are largely silent, and if they seek help tend to seek it from similar non-traditional student peers.

I hesitate to say something so trendy, but this actually seems like a place where a chatbot could do some good. Chatbots have recently become common in many industries, providing an alternative interface to a database of information.  A relatively simple program interacts with people via a chat client, trying to find answers to their questions. Recently, some classes have been experimenting with basic chatbots.


I know, I hate the avatar too.

The complaints that students have about chatbots is these simpler ones aren’t always that good — but that’s partially because a chatbot built for a single class can’t really benefit from scale. On the other hand, a How to College chatbot could. Questions that come in from the chatbot that are not answerable by the chatbot could be forwarded to staff who research the answers and feed them back into the student database.

Additionally, the chatbot doesn’t even need to be particularly good. One of the ideas behind chatbots is that they allow people to initiate conversations that they feel awkward initiating with humans. But if the chatbot cannot find the answer, the chatbot encourages you to take it to the next level and contact a human. And now you know your question isn’t *completely* dumb, because if it was a common question, the chatbot would know it, right?

This allows you to contact student services or your professor starting with the line “I asked the chatbot this, but it didn’t seem to know…”. And the chatbot will even give you the email address.

I’m not saying this is a panacea for Student Success. But it’s simple, it’s scalable, and if developed as an open source program, it could be rolled out many places at once. Even where not effective, the questions asked are likely to be valuable data for campus initiatives.

I’m part of our campus’s Reimagining the First Year team (an AASCU/Gates project), and will bring the idea up there next week maybe. But I’m curious, have others seen talk about chatbots to support first-year students, or maybe even seen decent implementations of this idea? Is this something that’s already been going on that I’ve missed (it probably is, I’m an OER and collaboration expert, not a student services guy). Let me know in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Chatbots for First-Year Student Success

  1. The OU ran an experimental forum based autoresponder (“The Virtual Participant”, aka Uncle Bulgaria) for a bit – – that would chip in to forum conversations if it could.

    Slack currently provides a nice playground for writing simple bots (that you can think of as participants), or “slash commands” that you can think of as services. I’ve started playing with some simple demos around various APIs. As you say, you can write some dumb rules that allow natural-ish questions if you’re trained to ask them in a particular way. eg if I code a rule to extract everything after the word “about” in a sentence, I can ask it “what do you know about X?”, ‘tell me about X?”, “give me everything you’ve got about X”… That sort of thing is easy enough to get working in a simple domain; then you can start monitoring other question forms that get asked and look to see if there are other trivial patterns you can use to answer commonly appearing ones of those.

    • Thanks Tony. Whenever I mention something like this, it’s always my hope that you’ll show up and tell me you did it five years ago. 😉

  2. Pingback: The Week in Robots ~
  3. Thanks for the explanation about bots, AI and what they can do or could do in the education sector. A little more business integrations and better customer experience will work out wonders. I have come across a chatbot platform called Engati which guided me to design a chatbot within 10 mins and no coding. You too can give it a try at building a bot in less than 10 mins. Engati is a chatbot platform that allows you to build, manage, integrate, train, analyze and publish your personalized bot in a matter of minutes. It presently supports eight major messaging platforms including messenger, Kik, telegram, line, Viber, Skype, slack and webchat with a focus on customer engagement, conversational commerce, and customer service and fulfillment. Read more about it here

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