I really see AI progressing at the university to enhance the student experience by providing users with detailed, automated information anytime, anywhere.
Scott arnold, Public affairs & communications specialist,
San diego state university
The second pillar of scale and adaptability is Response, and it emphasises the importance of ensuring that information is available through a variety of channels. AI platforms that integrate chatbots, live chat, and other communication tools provide institutions of higher education an advantage in supporting and adjusting their communications mix, especially as it relates to responding to a crisis. Scott Arnold is a Public Affairs & Communications Specialist at San Diego State University (SDSU), where they’ve leveraged AI technology since 2019. Read on to learn how San Diego State University mastered the second pillar of scale and adaptability.
When asked why SDSU chose to implement AI as a part of their communications mix, Arnold pointed to three areas of emphasis: student experience, student demand, and operational capacity.
Student Account Services is committed to improving the student experience to make it as enjoyable and as seamless as possible” said Arnold. “That includes making billing and payment processes easier, which is not the most exciting part of the college experience, but it is a component nonetheless.” Arnold reflected on his own student experience and the way that available resources didn’t always accommodate it. “Unlike us, AI never sleeps, so it’s a great way for us to connect the student body with resources any time of the day.
Arnold added that student behavior was a factor, explaining that their students really value flexibility. By collaborating with other offices and listening to student feedback, SDSU learned that students were not only receptive to communicating with AI, but that in many cases it was their preference. “In hindsight, our students love communicating with our chatbot, and when it isn’t able to resolve a particular issue, they have the flexibility to escalate the issue and text with a member of our staff in real time.”
When tasked with creating a seamless, flexible experience for students, Arnold noted that operational capacity was a significant consideration. “We’re one office that supports a very large campus with an abundance of inquiries that can quickly accumulate and become burdensome for our staff. We wanted to provide an additional resource that would automate many FAQ type questions and greatly reduce the total number of inquiries that our staff personally resolve.”
Before the onset of the pandemic, Arnold said they had already installed an AI chatbot on their website to supplement their communications mix. “In addition to having the chatbot, we hosted office hours for counseling and in-person support, we leveraged social media channels, and we managed a lot of outbound and inbound emails.” However, that quickly changed when the state of California issued stay-at-home orders.
“Fortunately, we were able to leverage our chatbot more,” Arnold said, “implementing banner-style alerts and notifications that delivered updates to users at the hourly level very early on.” This was helpful as they made changes to their processes, such as converting their in-person office hours to virtual meeting rooms.
“Prior to COVID-19 we weren’t using the Live Chat technology included with our chatbot,” Arnold explained, “but looking back, it was a great resource.” SDSU transitioned to a 3-tier approach starting with their AI chatbot, passing unresolved inquiries to Live Chat agents, and escalating the most complex issues to advisors via virtual meetings. “This worked really well because, despite a sudden disruption, our staff could seamlessly provide consultative services through a new channel.”
Arnold added that their AI was beneficial to staff members during that period. “Information was changing almost hourly, and some staff members weren’t accustomed to providing virtual service. AI made that much easier, since we could program automated responses and edit them in real-time.” The AI solution chosen by SDSU includes a feature that scans the content of Live Chat interactions and provides agents with suggested responses. “It was a great way to ensure that our communications were uniform, it saved our staff a lot of time and effort, and it helped with gaps where staff members might not have been aware of new information that was recently added to the AI.”
Adjusting to Virtual Service
Arnold recounted a fairly smooth transition to providing service virtually. “The very first day of stay at home, me and my colleagues had a 2-3 hour virtual training session. We started with student assistants who were more familiar with virtual interaction, getting them up-to-speed with our AI and Live Chat technology.”
After that meeting, they piloted the new approach briefly and gathered feedback that they used to train the rest of their staff. “We spent additional time with team members whose experience was grounded in face-to-face interaction as a measure of ensuring that engagements were charismatic and accommodating.” According to Arnold, having AI technology in place that facilitated consistent communications in the face of constant change made the entire process easier for their staff and their students.
When asked about how AI will continue to support the SDSU population moving forward, Arnold was optimistic. “I think we’re going to see a lot of improvements internally.” He pointed out that SDSU is in the process of transitioning to new student information systems, and likewise that they had not integrated their AI with legacy systems. “As soon as that is accomplished, we’ll be able to facilitate more personalized responses for questions like ‘what is my account balance?’”
He went on to say that AI will most likely be embraced at a more central level. “I think we’re going to see more divisions on our campus deploying more solutions that accommodate student inquiries, regardless of what happens with the pandemic. Having introduced these tools, we’ve seen that our students love our chatbot, and really value the ability to connect with counselors via Live Chat. I really see AI progressing at the university to enhance the student experience by providing users with detailed, automated information anytime, anywhere.”
Arnold also offered advice for anyone exploring AI as a solution at their institution. “I personally recommend that you invest some time into planning, thinking about your goals, and comparing them to what AI can do for your communications mix.” He cautioned against the notion that AI replaces anything you’re doing, saying that it’s more of a supplemental element. “For us, it was all about automating service for basic inquiries, and now we’re working toward making that service more personal.”
- Continually reassess the needs and challenges of both the audience and the organization
- Identify opportunities to leverage AI as a viable supplement to the communications mix
- Adopt a multichannel approach to communications leverages the use of AI and other technology to accommodate users at scale
- Standard use with knowledge library
- Guide users through FAQs
- Use notification banners to reach your audience
- Review tickets to add knowledge
- Live Chat
- Take advantage of AI Agent Assist
- Utilize canned responses for greater efficiency
- Social Media
- Zoom (for escalations)
- Establish a balance between artificial and human interaction
- Provide consistency of messaging across all channels in the communications mix