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Humanizing AI: The future of higher ed chatbots

by Rachel Bishop | June 12, 2019
Humanizing AI: The future of higher ed chatbots

We know what you’re thinking. “Humanizing AI? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” To be fair, it’s a logical conclusion. After all, AI, or artificial intelligence, is supposed to replace humans…right?

Well, not necessarily, despite what sci-fi movies might make you think.

At Signal Vine, we like to think of AI as our friend, not our replacement. First of all, it’s less scary that way. We don't toss and turn at night at the idea of using AI to help us knock out redundant tasks that take up valuable time. However, many of us cower in fear at the thought of being replaced by technology that we created. Thankfully, we’re not the only ones who argue that fully replacing humans with AI is a far-fetched concept. In his article regarding how AI will interact with us in the workplace, Joe McKendrick sums up the sentiment quite nicely:

Instead of worrying about job losses, executives should be helping to reduce jobs in which AI and machine learning take over boring tasks, while humans spend more time with higher-level tasks.

Fewer mundane tasks in the office? Yes please.

What does this have to do with Signal Vine?

Glad you asked. Since the release of our Virtual Advisor tool, it has everything to do with us.

higher ed chatbots
The Virtual Advisor allows college staff to answer commonly asked questions ahead of time so that the Virtual Advisor rather than staff can answer them when students text.

If you check our blog regularly (and if you don’t, you totally should), you might remember our first post introducing our AI-powered Virtual Advisor. The concept of the Virtual Advisor stemmed from a common customer sentiment:

“I am so tired of answering the same questions over and over again!”

Our customers were clearly frustrated with this mundane task. Even if you adore texting your students, you are bound to grow sick of typing, “The deadline to submit your application is June 30,” over and over again. This, to us, sounded like a perfect use case for AI.

Rather than fully replacing that valuable interaction between students and their advisors, the Virtual Advisor simply steps in when a frequently asked question is posed. So, when students text asking that frequently asked question, they will get an automatic response thanks to the Virtual Advisor. However, if the student has additional questions or a not so frequently asked question, the message is flagged for a human to respond. What a beautiful partnership.

Now wait a second. How does the Virtual Advisor know when to respond?

You’re good at asking questions. The Virtual Advisor “listens” to conversations to spot out the frequently asked questions it has been programmed to know. From there, it uses a confidence level of its understanding, made possible by AI. In other words, it “listens” for particular queries as students text.

From there, it judges each query. If the Virtual Advisor ranks the query with high confidence, it will respond with the pre-programmed answer. If the Virtual Advisor ranks the query with low confidence, it flags the message for a human to respond. It acts as an assistant, ready to answer those questions you just can’t fathom answering one more time by the hundredth student who asked it that day.

So it’s your take on higher ed chatbots.

Kind of, but there are key differences. Higher ed chatbots exist to replace advisor interaction with students, which is our opposite goal with the Virtual Advisor. Students know when they're talking to a chatbot. By that same token, students want to know that a real human is cheering them on and there to help them through their academic hurdles. Chatbots get in the way of this interaction. If we accomplish our mission, your students will never know they have interacted with the Virtual Advisor – but you certainly will, thanks to the time you miraculously have.

In fact, the AI-powered Virtual Advisor is better than higher ed chatbots. The Virtual Advisor is continuously learning, and it judges students’ inquiries before responding, unlike a chatbot. Chatbots largely don’t possess the ability to process information like a human, whereas the Virtual Advisor knows how to do this and gets better at it each day. The Virtual Advisor can successfully answer questions about deadlines, requirements, and general facts about your institution. The heavy questions, or the ones that are deeply personal to students, are still best answered by humans. This is how the Virtual Advisor helps decrease your workload without coming between you and your students.

Further, students must proactively approach a chatbot to receive help. We all know that the students who need help the most are often not the ones reaching out for it. This is why the Virtual Advisor works. When paired with text nudges, these students are in exactly the right place to receive the information they didn’t know they needed.

Humanizing AI

We suspect that staff searching for higher ed chatbots will benefit most from our Virtual Advisor. Rather than taking over conversations and even misleading or confusing students, the Virtual Advisor works with you to make sure your students get the answers they need to the questions they have. The Virtual Advisor is constantly learning and getting smarter, but at the end of the day, you and your students control the conversation. We think that’s the way it should be.

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