One of the things I like most about AI is that it tells us what people are asking about, when they’re contacting us, and what channel they’re using. It really helps as we make decisions moving forward.
Chevaun Whitman, Director, Bear Essentials Morgan's One-Stop for Student Services, Morgan State University
The third pillar of scale and adaptability is Reassurance, and it underscores the benefit of listening to AI data to drive the most effective content delivery. AI Chatbots gather mountains of transactional data from end users, such as what information they’re seeking, when, and even how they seek it. Having this information accessible during a time of crisis can be particularly advantageous as institutions aim to reassure their communities. At Morgan State University (MSU), Chevaun Whitman and Dr. Ernest Brevard Jr. have leveraged AI technology since 2018. Whitman is MSU’s Director of Bear Essentials, Morgan’s One-Stop for Student Services, and Dr. Brevard is their Special Assistant to the Vice President and Director of Budget, Planning, and Operations for Enrollment Management and Student Success. Read on to learn how MSU masters the third pillar of scale and adaptability.
A Common Goal
At MSU, there’s a commitment to service that starts at the very top. When asked why MSU explored the prospect of using AI to communicate with their community, both Whitman and Brevard referred to the vision of MSU’s president, Dr. David Wilson. “Dr. Wilson likes to say that we want to provide an Amazon-like experience” Whitman said, speaking of the University’s goal to provide a seamless service experience for their customers. “At the end of the day, this is the expectation of our student population,” said Brevard, “so we’re always being challenged to find new ways to enhance the service experience for our customers.
AI technology provides MSU with a multi-functional tool for improving service. While discussing its role at the University, Whitman highlighted the impact it has on consistent messaging and efficiency. “The goal is to make sure we’re taking some of the heavy lifting off of our departments so that they can provide better, more efficient service.”
In addition to improving service delivery for staff, AI also helps to reinforce cohesion of information at MSU. “One of the things we decided to do from very early on was to connect all of the AI for each department,” said Brevard. By connecting them, each department can provide users with detailed information about the others. Brevard elaborated that “a student can be on a Financial Aid website communicating with the chatbot and they’ll still be able to get answers to questions that normally would be addressed by the Bursar.”
Getting AI at MSU
Brevard recalled that one of the biggest challenges in bringing AI to MSU was securing buy-in from other departments. “Not all offices were on board at first. Some offices don’t have operational budgets to take-on new technology,” Brevard said. Whitman added that “whenever you’re introducing an enhancement, you really have to highlight the mutual benefits” to help them understand what’s at stake.
At MSU, their chosen AI solution scaled as they added additional offices. As a result, they were able to reduce the cost of implementation by distributing it across more than one department. “Once we were able to show that we had funding and that some departments wouldn’t have to allocate their budgets, everyone got on board,” Brevard said. Given that the AI was able to service students across multiple departments without silos, this approach supported the budgetary needs of each office while also supporting the University’s commitment to service.
Currently, MSU is using AI to support the nine offices including Information Technology, Undergraduate Admissions, Financial Aid, Registrar, Student Success and Retention, Center for Academic Success and Achievement, Transfer Student Programming, Bursar, and Residence Life and Housing.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted operations, MSU was actively exploring ways to listen to (and understand the concerns of) their students. “The Office of Academic Affairs delivered surveys, and our president held multiple town hall meetings with students,” said Brevard. “One of the major ways we changed our communications is that we leveraged the Live Chat function included with our AI technology,” said Whitman. “It allowed students to communicate with us in a new way that wasn’t as heavy as email.”
Whitman added that the pandemic has increased the sense of urgency among their users. “Across the country there is a heightened sense of anxiety, where in the past it might have been acceptable to provide a response within 24 hours, but now everyone expects the information to be immediately accessible.” Brevard added that “when we went remote, one thing we had not considered was that our students would be in different time zones.” AI was helpful for MSU as they navigated these changes, since it could provide immediate service after hours.
Listening to AI Data
When asked about whether AI transactional data can inform the institution, Whitman confirmed that it can and does. “There’s definitely a cycle when you examine the types of inquiries you’re getting. For example, from October to March we might see questions related to admissions or test scores, but from March to early Summer we may see more questions related to billing.”
“One of the things I like most about AI is that it tells us what people are asking about, when they’re contacting us, and what channel they’re using. It really helps as we make decisions moving forward,” said Whitman. “We can tell which hours are the peak hours, what platform students are using to communicate, and whether they’re using a PC or a mobile device.” For Whitman, this kind of information prompts evaluation of how they should be communicating and delivering information. “Do we need to start looking at push notifications because more people are using their cell phones?” Whitman asked rhetorically to illustrate her point.
When asked where they see the evolution of AI at Morgan State, Whitman and Brevard offered different insights that both centered around expansion. “I’m looking to see that we expand the use of AI into all of our scopes of work that can assist us in providing that Amazon-like experience for our entire population,” said Brevard.
From Whitman’s perspective there’s emphasis on short-term expansion by way of integration. “I’m really excited about integrating our student information system with our AI. We want to make sure students have access to personalized information no matter where they are or how they’re contacting us.”
Whitman cautioned those exploring AI as a resource to remember that it is a compliment to other modes of communication and not a replacement. Brevard agreed and offered his own advice, noting that “collaboration is key. The more departments you can get on board, the better.”
- Always strive to be proactive instead of reactive
- Flexibility and cooperation are essential
- Obtaining buy-in must be continually revisited
- Use AI data to change direction where needed