Artificial intelligence is having a moment in higher education, but chatbots trained by years of student interaction have long been valuable tools.
Artificial intelligence has been a blazingly hot topic in higher education since ChatGPT burst onto the scene in late 2022, stoking early fears that comprehensive, AI-written essays would “blow up” the entire education system.
Much of the early panic over ChatGPT has subsided as instructors have realized the limitations of the AI, tools have been developed to detect its use and thought leaders have encouraged colleges to embrace tools like ChatGPT.
But lost in some of the clamor over generative AI tools like ChatGPT is the reality that AI has been a helpful ally to colleges and universities for years. AI tutors have been assisting students since at least 2016, and university-branded chatbots have been around just as long. University chatbots took on even greater importance during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when reinforcing any kind of connection between students and their campus was a major challenge.
Those chatbots have come a long way in the past few years, too. Like any AI, as more universities have engaged with more students, chatbots have grown smarter and gotten better at building the kinds of relationships that have proved critical in driving retention, reducing summer melt and improving graduation rates at universities that implement them effectively.
“Even if students aren’t using the bot and asking questions, it does seem like, on some level, they are registering that people on campus want to help them,” says Emily Russell, a professor at the California State University, Northridge, and one of the faculty liaisons for CSUNny, the university’s chatbot. “There is a whole host of research suggesting that that feeling of belonging is one of the biggest predictors of retention and graduation,” she says.
What Impact Do Chatbots Have on Student Success in Higher Ed?
CSUNny is actually the second chatbot to work on behalf of CSUN. It was born in 2018 (replacing Ask Matty) on the heels of a statewide push to improve graduation rates within the California State University System. The effort, called Graduation Initiative 2025, has succeeded in pulling up flagging graduation rates through a variety of programs. At Northridge, a team led by Elizabeth Adams, then the university’s associate vice president of undergraduate studies, secured funding for a chatbot to aid in these efforts.
In the fall of 2018, CSUN opted to test CSUNny by allowing half of all first-time freshmen access to the chatbot and measuring their success against a control group that did not use CSUNny. Three years later, in the fall of 2021, students who were given access to CSUNny were “significantly more likely” to still be enrolled at the university and were more likely to have already graduated (5.6 percent) than their control group counterparts (3.6 percent).
Similar success was found by Georgia State University, one of the first institutions to use a chatbot with the stated goal of reducing summer melt by staying in contact with students when they were away from campus. Pounce, Georgia State’s chatbot, reduced summer melt by 22 percent and has continued to evolve since then. In 2021, Pounce was offered to a group of political science students to remind them of upcoming exams, assignment deadlines and more. Students who used the chatbot received better grades and were more likely to pass than those who did not.
What Makes a Higher Ed Chatbot Successful?
In the cases of CSUN and Georgia State, their chatbots began as an extension of their admissions offices. At CSUN, students were first introduced to CSUNny when they submitted their deposits. The chatbot then guided them through the rest of the enrollment process, reminding them to stay on top of financial aid applications and helping them stay connected until they visited campus for the first time.
CSUNny was and is monitored by humans and can direct students to those humans to answer questions it cannot. But one special power of chatbots seems to be that they’re close enough to human to forge a bond with students, yet not human enough to make them uncomfortable.
“Students recognize that it’s a bot, but they interact with the bot very differently and often very vulnerably because it’s not a human,” says David Dufault-Hunter, the associate vice president for enrollment services as CSUN. “They feel they can articulate and share stories that they wouldn’t necessarily do with a person.”
Kathe Pelletier Director, Teaching and Learning Program, EDUCAUSE
In an effort to further those connections, CSUNny has evolved to meet students at a more emotional level. The chatbot now tells “dad jokes,” says Russell, and is “meant to make students feel like they belong and are being watched over.”
One of the ways CSUNny has built and maintained a connection with students is by giving it a consistent voice. One professor is the primary writer for CSUNny’s communication so that it’s as relatable as possible. Russell says CSUN has put in a “ton of effort” into shaping what CSUNny should be.
At Arizona State University, its chatbot, Sunny, was intentionally designed, in part, to provide emotional support to students. It’s gone over so well, says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE, that some students have told Sunny, “I love you.”
“Even though students know it’s a chatbot, they really are feeling this kind of emotional connection to the university and emotional connection to the chatbot, which we laugh at, but sometimes that’s the factor that keeps students engaged and continuing,” she says.
Pelletier also says these chatbots appear to have a disproportionate benefit to first-generation students and those from minority backgrounds since those students are sometimes uncomfortable asking what they might fear are “stupid questions” of an actual human.
“It’s been a great way to engage underrepresented students in a way that feels safe,” she says. “It really allows them to get past some of those hurdles that are there just because they may not have had as much experience in their family with higher education.”