Using AI to Build Systems that Support and Engage Adult Learners

Joe Schaefer, Chief Transformation Officer, Strategic Education, Inc
Joe Schaefer, Chief Transformation Officer, Strategic Education, Inc

Joe Schaefer, Chief Transformation Officer, Strategic Education, Inc

Today, nearly 40 percent of students at U.S. colleges are age 25 or older. They often work at least part time to afford tuition and living costs, and many are juggling school and family responsibilities like caring for children. Time is a precious resource for them.

These “nontraditional” students require flexibility so that they can accommodate all their responsibilities while pursuing their higher education. As the demand for more flexibility grows, so does the demand for online learning. Today, a third of students take at least one course online. Because fewer students are now on traditional campuses, learners rely heavily on online learning platforms that are supported by strong IT systems.

As Chief Transformation Officer overseeing a portfolio of several higher education institutions, I work on innovative programs that help adult learners who are always on the go. Our teams often ask how we can create efficiencies to give our students time back. One answer is artificial intelligence (AI).

  The potential for these tools to provide student support is limitless—including answering questions about course schedules, financial aid, tutoring, library resources, and IT issues  

As we consider the students of today, one part of education that can benefit from AI and machine learning is the administrative side of going back to school. At most universities, online resources are available for students to self-service their IT, administrative, and research needs. However, the potential for these tools to provide student support is limitless—including answering questions about course schedules, financial aid, tutoring, library resources, and IT issues.

Think back to when you were a student. You likely wanted answers quickly and didn’t have extra time to wait around to find out how to register for classes or the steps for submitting financial aid forms. You probably also preferred getting immediate answers instead of aimlessly pushing buttons in response to a recording.

At Strayer University, we recognize the need to constantly improve the quality of the personal service students receive and decrease the time students spend seeking that support. That’s why we’ve launched a virtual agent (also known as a chat bot), called Irving, to cut back on wait times for administrative support and free up more time for students to focus on their studies.

Because the chat bot is always available via the student portal and mobile applications, students can engage immediately. To keep the interaction time brief, the chat bot fulfills a student’s specific need by confirming relevant information during the interaction through a chat interface. Irving can then provide prompt, personalized information such as directions for accessing a tutor or degree program requirements. This is because the chat bot is tied to our administrative systems and can review student records faster than a human agent would be able to. On average, chat sessions with Irving last one minute and 40 seconds, less than a third the average length of reported conversations with human agents via online chat functions and telephone.

Through this technology, students get answers quicker, and university staff is freed up to focus on helping students with more complex needs along their journeys to complete their degrees. Since Strayer launched Irving in 2017, the chat bot has had an 87-percent success rate in its ability to understand student questions. Less than 15 percent of students’ chat sessions (measured over 30 days) required escalation to a human agent.

Just like any AI technology, Irving isn’t a static resource. It’s important to constantly monitor its successes and find ways to improve. To do this, we both log and measure every student interaction, so we can record the number of positive interactions, false positives and the level of “intent matching”—that is, whether Irving interpreted the student’s need successfully.

After a year of Irving’s engagement with students, we have learned a lot. First, we found that financial aid questions are among the most frequently asked, and that the chat bot can guide students through their financial aid processes. Students also frequently request support around course registration and understanding what classes they need to take to fulfill graduation requirements. Basic academic support for our students, including resources for tutoring, research or writing style guides, is frequently requested as well.

Chatting is just the first step. Irving is a transferable technology. We are actively developing other mediums for interactions with Irving, including Google Assistant and SMS. Currently, students must initiate their interactions with Irving. However, research and testing are underway that would allow for Irving to proactively engage with students and offer more personalized support.

The scope of resources Irving provides to students will continue to grow so that each interaction will become more tailored to each student’s needs, serving our ultimate goal of helping adult students get over the finish line to graduation.

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