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8 ways colleges are adjusting digital services for 24/7 students

As the pandemic unwinds in 2021, colleges and universities are adjusting their digital services to address student needs, often relying on software and automation to offer support after traditional business hours have ended.

Often these services come through artificial intelligence, with schools offering AI-based solutions for offering writing advice or questions about university life. Institutions are also digitizing experiences that are normally on-campus, such as bookstores and mental health centers, to improve access.

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1. Creating meaningful discussions

When students submit work to online class discussion boards, professors and teaching assistants aren’t always available to give immediate feedback. Some universities have begun using artificial intelligence software called Packback that scans content for grammar and suggests ways for students to improve their posts. That can include adding a source or including supporting information.

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2. Analyzing emails

Colleges and universities are increasingly relying on customer relationship management systems, which analyze and track communications, to personalize their interactions with students. Some email tracking systems can record when students are most likely to open emails and send out messages accordingly. Coppin State University in Maryland recently adopted a communications solution from Microsoft that automatically schedules those messages.

“The system is so smart that it can predict that this student always reads the email at 11 o’clock in the morning, while this student reads the email at 10 o’clock in the evening and then will send the messages at those times where it’s most likely for that student to read,” he said.

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3. Opening a virtual therapist’s office

Virtual mental health services were a necessity when the coronavirus pandemic closed college campuses, but the demand is sticking around, according to recent data from the online therapy provider TimelyCare. Nearly half of visits held on the platform, from August to the end of October, were outside of traditional office hours. 

More institutions are adopting virtual services for their flexibility. Massachusetts recently selected the teletherapy company UWill as a statewide provider for its colleges and universities. Sacred Heart University in Connecticut is also providing free sessions through UWill, where students can also communicate with therapists through text messaging.

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4. Opening digital bookstores

College bookstores, long competing with online vendors and rental companies, are now digitizing their textbook sales. Providers like Akademos work with colleges to move textbook sales online, which academic leaders say can help students also select the most affordable option

Virginia Wesleyan announced in September it moved book sales online, but leaders told EdScoop that the shift freed up space in the physical bookstore for items people might want to purchase in-person, like apparel. Keith Moore, vice president for campus life and operational management, said that students adjusted quickly because they were used to ordering online, but that Akademos worked with the university to help administration and faculty transition to the new system.

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6. Automating quizzes

Walden University and Google Cloud in August announced a new virtual tutor named “Julian,” The software is designed for students to check their learning comprehension without teachers needing to create additional materials.

Google worked with the online university to introduce the feature into its social work and education tracks, aiming to create assessments for areas with more open-ended answers. Using machine learning, Julian produces both short-form and multiple choice questions based on selected text or resources.

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7. Connecting students

Instead of confining student interactions with applicants to designated event times, some colleges are making connections through the chat platform Unibuddy. There, users who have questions are virtually introduced to student ambassadors, where they can correspond at their convenience. The company, which announced a $20 million Series B funding round in July, says it works with more than 500 universities.

University of California recruitment director Jessica Stern told EdScoop that the platform also offers potential international applicants a way to connect directly with current students to get authentic feedback on the institution.

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8. Delegating the basics

Georgia Tech piloted “Jill Watson,” an AI assistant, in a computer science science program in 2016. When instructors introduce Jill in a course, she uses a knowledge base about the program to answer basic questions from students. Students interact with Jill on an online discussion forum called Piazza.

The AI’s success led Georgia Tech to later use it for connecting students in online discussions, using similarities in time zones, course of study and hobbies as criteria for matches.

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