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Struggling Students Rely on AI Chatbots Throughout Pandemic Featured

Struggling Students Rely on AI Chatbots Throughout Pandemic Wes Hicks

What began as a tool to help students at California State University campuses stay on track – artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots quickly became a lifeline to many students isolated due to the pandemic. After hearing of a similar program at Georgia State University- Elizabeth Adams, Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Studies at Cal State Northbridge applied for a grant to help students at California State Universities excel at the school both on an academic and personal level. According to Adams the AI chatbots were created with freshmen and transfer students in mind as well as students who are the first in their families to go to college. “It's especially appealing to first-generation students because they don't always know what questions to ask or who to ask them to, and they don't like being embarrassed about it," Adams noted.

According to, chatbots are software applications that use artificial intelligence & natural language processing to understand what a human wants, and guides them to their desired outcome with as little work for the end user as possible. Think of chatbots as a virtual assistant who is always there to help whether it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon or 3:30 AM in the morning.

Each chatbot at the universities was given a name and a personality to help students connect to them. The AI chatbot at Cal Poly Pomona was named Billy after the school’s mascot Billy Bronco and is programed to answer questions regarding student life at the college. If a question comes in that is not in Billy’s vocabulary or it involves a red flag like self-harm – it gets forwarded to a human being who can be quick to act if necessary.

But Billy and the other chatbots were not just around to answer incoming questions. Along with her team Adams created “campaigns” that included periodical dad jokes or deadlines for financial aid, and available support services. The key was to keep the students informed and equipped with knowledge to succeed.

When the pandemic hit, the chatbots didn’t just go away because students went home. They were still available to answer students’ questions. Except the questions changed from being predominately about student life and became a confidant to students struggling with the pandemic. For one student, Billy became a lifeline as she battled depression and Covid-19. Being too sick to email her professors, Schneider Godfrey texted Billy telling him about the situation. Through Billy, her teachers were notified, and she was able to access a $500 emergency grant for her university.

Chatbots have become extremely popular as companies opt to deploy chatbots to reduce employee workload. Many AI chatbots are designed with pre-designed rules in mind. As more questions get asked the chatbots learn and is able to answer questions more efficiently.

But like the chatbots at California State Universities, chatbots role in education continue to flourish. Boston-based startup AdmitHub recently raised $16 million in Series B funding for their education-focused chatbots. AdmitHub, who will be rebranding as Mainstay was behind Georgia State University success – creating an AI powered chatbot for the university to combat summer drop-out rates between high school and college. AdmitHub’s cofounder and CEO Drew Magliozzi said in a statement, “Partnering in close collaboration with schools around the country, we’re building an empathy engine for higher education that will enable institutions and their students to navigate even the biggest and most unexpected obstacles.” In the end, Georgia State University was able to reduce the summer drop-out rate by 21%.

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Danielle Loughnane

Danielle Loughnane earned her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College and has been working in the marketing and data science field since 2015.

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