The Potential of Virtual Assistants in Education

Giovanni Duarte, Director, Academic Strategy & Innovation, Chamberlain University

For some, Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri is what comes to mind when Virtual Assistants (VAs) are mentioned. However, in an educational setting, a virtual assistant needs to do much more than simply answer questions or automate tasks. It must be a lot more meaningful and personal. Chamberlain University started this journey towards the end of 2019 under the direction of the Center for Transformational Education and Learning Innovation team.

How did we start?

There was a need to reduce costs on help desk support. There were many questions that could be answered via a “FAQ,” but we needed to provide this in a more elegant way, and this is how our VA was born.

What should you consider?

The biggest challenge we are still facing today is the lack of strategy, alignment, and common goals around our VA. This includes having the right personnel and alignment between departments. For example, we learned very quickly that students asked questions related to student services and finance. However, these teams were not ready or available to support this right away, and it took a lot of convincing to get different teams involved. Instead, this alignment should have been discussed, defined, and approved from the beginning to ensure the right resources and strategies were working towards the same goal.

How do you learn what students need?

Ask them about what they need in their educational journey. Talk about their campus experience, how to keep track of their tasks, how they learn best, what they wish was easier, faster, or better for them. This is how you start thinking about what AI and VAs could do for your students. Imagine if a student could get a reminder about his or her next class with the location along with the faculty notes. How much better would the student experience be with this simple step?

What do you do with this information?

This is where it is important to have AI experts, but more importantly, visionaries on your team. You need to know about the market and how AI is used but also think outside the box. Imagine how you can mitigate student frustrations or improve their experience with automation, bots, and personalized assistance.

What have we done so far?

In addition to the “fancy FAQ”, we created a more personalized student experience

1. Students can access our VA via text message, phone call, or website. They all present a very similar and consistent experience.

2. The VA knows who they are, what program they belong to, and even the courses they are taking.

3. The VA can route students to the help desk and student services teams with an automated handshake. The VA knows their phone number and can do this immediate transfer. In addition, the VA can start a chat with a live agent from the help desk without disrupting the current conversation.

4. The VA has an assignment due date notification system. Students can opt-in and get reminders and notifications. These are all automated and based on what courses and assignments students have for a particular week.

What is next?

What has been discussed so far is what I call the barebones of a VA. This is the minimum a VA should do. However, we are missing out on other areas that are critical to the student experience.

Does your boss have a secretary or assistant that knows them so well, they know exactly what they need, what they like, and what to say or not in from of them? Imagine a world where each student has “their own assistant”.

Imagine students being able to register for class, finalize any paperwork, and work with the registrar alongside their VA. The VA would know the student progress and status and be able to automatically send reminders, submit forms, ask for signatures, etc.

Imagine a student is failing a chemistry course and the VA knows their progress, performance, what outcomes they have not met yet. The VA can provide alternatives to learning, content to review, videos to watch, and can even schedule a 1:1 meeting with the chemistry tutor.

Imagine that the VA understands the student’s priorities, needs, and likes. Therefore, it can facilitate the conversation among other students with same likes or dislikes. I am Colombian and whenever I find another Colombian, we just “click”: making interactions easier and feeling more connected, engaged, and personable.

What should you consider?

First and foremost, privacy. For any of these potential features and functionalities, students should be made aware. The reality is that a lot of this information is already known by Google, Amazon, Facebook, and many more. To be a good virtual assistant, you must have as much data and information as possible. Should we limit what we can do due to privacy concerns? I don’t believe we should. We should strive to create a better student journey experience. To do this, we must learn, understand, and get to know our students. Otherwise, this is a guessing game.

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