Skip links

Chatbots in Higher Ed: Where We Are & Where We’re Going

Chatbots are dramatically innovating the world of business communications across a variety of industries. As customers demand more speedy, efficient means for problem resolution, chatbots play a vital role in improving business processes.

As an industry, conversational AI is projected to reach $1.3 billion by 2025. This is with as many as 90 percent of all queries expected to be answered by chatbots in 2024. The Juniper Research study suggests that this could ultimately save as much as $0.70 per customer interaction.

Whether an institution is dealing with thousands of students, the cost savings available through chatbots ultimately make them a no-brainer for improving efficiency. Yet the technologies that power chatbots have not kept up with the growing needs of most institutions.

The vast majority of chatbots on the market are too clunky and are more of a nuisance than they are helpful in the customer experience. In this guide, we’ll look at why many chatbots on the market fall short, and what buyers need to seek instead.

Overview of Today’s Chatbots

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, chatbots quickly became a critical tool for a variety of operations, especially in colleges and universities. The strictly virtual interactions with students dramatically increased the need to be digitally nimble enough to produce optimal online experiences. Chatbots facilitate a very useful function as part of that experience, but only if they can adequately and reliably serve peoples’ needs.

Here’s a quick overview of the types of chatbots available on the market:

Do-It-Yourself Bots

Bots are time-consuming to create and require a high volume of training data to develop natural language processing (NLP). DIY bots require a deep understanding of a variety of questions students might have from the very start. In other words, the bot is only as good as the data you give it. However, student needs change all the time, which means the list of questions the bot needs to know must expand as well. Today’s DIY bots require a significant investment of time, lack all-too-critical training data, and likewise come with a high risk of project failure.

Templated Bots

Some chatbot providers give customers knowledge templates for various departments. A knowledge template is a library of questions, including some training data, that the provider anticipates for a specific department. For example, Financial Aid offices and Admissions offices each have their own discrete knowledge templates. Templates are easier to set up than DIY bots and cover a baseline of knowledge your bot needs to know. The problem is that knowledge templates are limited in scope, do not grow over time, and administrators usually have no control over the knowledge post launch. Templated bots are also limited in sophistication, so they are often unable to understand context, learn from user questions, and if you and another institution are buying from the same vendor, your content won’t have any variation from theirs.

Custom-Built Bots

Think of this kind of chatbot as a completely blank slate, where the work is done for you and the bot has the capacity to improve over time. Custom-built bots come pre-loaded with training data to respond to natural language questions on day one, and can be built to answer questions about as many topics as you want. Depending on their level of sophistication, they may support machine learning, where bots learn and improve continuously from each interaction. The advantage of a custom-built bot is that it gives administrators full control over bot knowledge, and can communicate in a highly conversational format without the risk of project failure. It also enables administrators to add additional knowledge so the bot can take on new skills and save more staff time.

Any institution that plans to invest in chatbots should match their financial investment with the right technology and support to ensure its effectiveness over time. Importantly, even the most advanced chatbots are not “set it and forget it” tools. Instead, such investments should be treated as new employees that benefit from feedback, adding more value over time.

Top Chatbot Considerations

Selecting a chatbot in 2022 can feel daunting with so many different types on the market. When it comes to finding the right fit, your decision committee could look at a variety of factors including price, effectiveness, and even reputation. To this point, many chatbots have become commoditized, making it difficult to discern best-of-breed chatbots from the rest of the pack.

As chatbot technology advances, it’s imperative to adjust expectations. Institutions must adopt a comprehensive framework that better integrates chatbots into their overall campus strategy.

Here are some of the top considerations institutions seek when purchasing a chatbot.

Equitable Communication with Students

One of the top benefits institutions seek to gain when implementing a chatbot is increasing its ability to eliminate implicit bias. Most colleges and universities have taken active steps to make access equitable to all. Chatbots can play a significant role in leveling the playing field, especially when ongoing training data comes from a diverse population.

When looking for a chatbot solution, institutions expect that they’ll have the ability to train bots from questions that reflect their entire community. As institutions look to attract adult learners, first-generation students and others with diverse backgrounds, it’s important to train the bot on questions representative of the entire student population so the institution doesn’t mistakenly reinforce implicit bias by mistake.

Providing Student Value

Anyone that has been on a college campus understands students study and have questions at all hours. It’s commonplace for students to have questions at 2 a.m. or on weekends when staff members traditionally aren’t available. With chatbots, students have access to information 24/7/365 and can get their questions answered at any time.

Another benefit chatbots provide is that they allow for total anonymity when students have questions that are potentially embarrassing. Sometimes, issues related to mental health or an inability to pay a tuition bill might otherwise cause students to keep their questions or problems to themselves. A chatbot can allow them to feel safe so they get the information they need without physically going into an office or calling an advisor. For this reason, institutions should seek chatbot solutions that can be expanded to provide support with such topics.

Bots are non-discriminatory and can’t tell the difference between students of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. While institutions strive for an inclusive environment on campus, there is always the risk that bias may impact a student’s experiences. On the other hand, bots ensure that students are treated equitably, free of bias, and without prejudice. They ensure that students receive equitable treatment regardless of their background.

If you’re hoping to attract international students, chatbots can provide some help there as well. Traditionally, students who speak another language need to deal with websites that may have poor and confusing translations, or hope that someone in the department they’re reaching speaks their language. Today, most state-of-the-art chatbots can automatically converse and understand more than 100 languages and make international students more comfortable communicating their needs. This is also relevant for some first-generation students that don’t always speak English as a first language at home. As educators reach more and more first-generation students, helping them feel comfortable asking for help is crucial to improving student support and satisfaction.

Meets Accessibility Requirements

Higher ed institutions face a moral and legal imperative to make their customer experience more inclusive. As more organizations seek ways to widen their customer base, more marketers place priority on making their websites more accessible. However, this often requires an overhaul for which most institutions aren’t prepared – especially when implementing a chatbot. The most effective way to get ahead of the curve is to simply source a chatbot solution that meets accessibility requirements. Some state-of-the-art solutions meet or even exceed accessibility requirements out of the box. If you’re unaware of the latest accessibility requirements, there are a few questions you should ask your vendor of choice when investing in a chatbot.

First, get familiar with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines are useful for anyone dealing with development and have a mandate to improve accessibility. WCAG changes often, so when you’re investing in a chatbot, it must be nimble in allowing you to continue improving website accessibility. For example, the chatbot you’re vetting should allow a screen reader to read the text from a chatbot for the hearing impaired. In addition, the chatbot should support high-contrast ratios, enable keyboard navigation, communicate on-screen options, and enable users to increase text size without loss of functionality.

There should also be some straightforward instructions on where users can find accessibility features, settings, and support within the application. Meeting accessibility requirements requires plenty of forethought when creating a product of any kind, let alone, a chatbot. But if you’re a business that prides itself on being customer-centric, your audience will hold your feet to the fire if you don’t walk the talk. Finding a chatbot that is WCAG-friendly will go a long way toward building and maintaining trust with your audience.

In fact, some chatbot technologies have the ability to automatically detect accessibility gaps on the web pages on which they’re installed. These solutions leverage connections with WCAG databases that refresh in real-time, ensuring that institutions receive real-time updates related to any on-page compliance issues.

Where We’re Going

Higher education is adopting chatbots at an unprecedented rate. Within the next few years, we predict that every institution will have some type of chatbot implementation in place. In other words, chatbots will no longer be a novelty, but rather, a commodity.

However the area where institutions stand to put themselves ahead of the pack is the level of complexity their chatbot offers from a support standpoint. While some institutions will only offer the basic level of support, the more sophisticated colleges and universities will be able to offer more personalized support and cover a greater number of topics. This will ultimately help institutions scale and provide more automation while still helping students on a 1:1 basis.

In addition, further developments such as Big Data and predictive analytics will allow institutions to provide proactive nudges based on aggregate data that will ultimately improve outcomes. Imagine the ability to ensure no student ever fell through the cracks at your institution. With the help of chatbots, that possibility is closer to reality than ever before.

As AI advances in the coming years, chatbots will get increasingly smarter, more intuitive, and as a result, more valuable. Institutions must continue staying up to date on the latest trends in chatbot technology, or risk being left behind. But for those that strive to be leaders in higher ed, they will be rewarded with better student retention, a more engaged student body and a robust pipeline of prospective students.