Chatbot helps universities check in with students during the pandemic

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To help universities stay connected with their students during the pandemic, educational technology company EdSights has released a free chatbot that allows advisers to check in on thousands of students at once and connect them with campus resources.

With students across the country continuing their educations from home, communicating with students to make sure they have the resources they need to learn is more important than ever, according to Carolina Recchi, co-founder of EdSights, but checking in on each student can be time consuming for university staff.

“It’s really hard to engage with students at scale and see which students may have been impacted by COVID-19 and what their struggles are,” Recchi told EdScoop.

The COVID-19 Chatbot has entered use at more than 25 institutions since its launch last month, including Bethel University, Baker University and Missouri Western State University. The tool helps schools communicate more efficiently and effectively with their students by checking-in with them via text message. The chatbot asks what their living arrangements are and directs them to campus resources as needed, like housing assistance programs. Students are also prompted to answer other questions about how the pandemic has affected them in regard to food security, employment, the transition to online classes and their emotional well-being.

At universities not using chatbots, engaging with students while they are off campus becomes a lot harder, Recchi said, where they instead use phone campaigns to get in touch with students.

“So they will have a list of 5,000 students or 6,000 students, and they’ll call them one by one and see how they’re doing,” she said. “And there’s a couple of problems with that.”

Without an automated system, relying on advisers to reach out to students one by one can be time consuming, Recchi said, but using a chatbot speeds the check in process up, allows advisers to check in with thousands of students at the same time.

Another issue, according to Recchi, is that not all students are going to pick up the phone and talk to a real person about their problems.

“What we see is that students really open up with the chatbot,” she said. “It removes that layer of mental effort that it takes to explain … what’s going on and get on the phone with them and hear their thoughts and get their reaction. And so it makes it easy and convenient to just open up.”

According to research by EdSights published in February, chatbots are highly effective tools for engaging with and supporting students. But in the current health crisis, their assistance and insight is even more valuable, said EdSights co-founder Claudia Recchi.

“Obviously more than ever now universities more than ever need to send a message to students that they still care about them, even if they’re remote,” she said. “[The chatbot] really does strengthen that kind of sense of belonging, that your university actually cares about what you have to say and takes that into account…but I think it’s definitely something that even once students will come back on campus, is going to be important.”

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