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Improving student engagement via a chatbot

11 Jun 2019 | Dr. Stephen Ellis Dr Stephen Ellis, Associate Dean, Business Management Faculty, Regent’s University London, presents a new approach to improving student engagement, a burning issue for many Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). His pilot, starting in the new academic year, offers an exciting opportunity to bring new students into the academic fold.

Student engagement, or perhaps the lack of it, is a challenge in many HEIs for a range of reasons. Low engagement leads to poor results, early dropouts and even mental health issues, which are unfortunately on the rise. Many of us are trying to 'fight back' but the competition for student ‘attention space’ from a range of other, more exciting outlets, is a real barrier. We need a new way to drive and enable engagement, and we have very limited resources to play with. The pilot we are trialling will emphasise relationships to drive engagement.

The outside world has already provided a solution in many cases to help their clients engage, known as chatbots, so why can’t higher education learn from this?

Observing student behaviour will confirm that the ‘war for attention’ is happening on their phones. For many their preferred method of communication is in many cases chat applications. Many HEIs are not really fighting in this space if they expect students to log on, go to a website, read a set of regulations etc. or even worse plough through generic emails. They simply won’t do it.  Information in the 4th industrial revolution now has to be instant, accurately targeted and relevant, otherwise it’s just ignored or ‘deleted’.

The other angle to consider is ‘what are we expecting today’s students to engage with?’ The traditional expectation of a student with a burning desire to attend university or college to learn about subject ‘xx’ is no longer the norm. Most programme content can now be found online as and when it is needed. The need to attend a class to learn from the professor is much diminished, but there are other, more engaging reasons to attend the class. HEIs are enforcing or introducing mandatory attendance programmes, however this does not drive engagement as students need to see the real value in being there and making attendance compulsory is unlikely to help; but enhancing the relationships and connections that students have just might. 

I believe what we really want students to engage with is the ‘art and practice’ of learning. This means being part of, and contributing to an active learning community, not a merely transactional relationship which is seems to be the current condition. For learning communities to thrive, we need to focus our attention on the initial student peer relationships, as they are important for strong social and academic integration.    

We are using an app called ‘Differ,’ the result of a 4-year long Norwegian R&D project including BI Norwegian Business School and an education technology start-up called Edtech Foundry. (Based in Oslo the team will be our active partners in the pilot, as they wish to develop it further). The app has had excellent results in improving engagement on distance learning programmes. It is not quite a learning bot but it has the potential to develop into just that.The idea of the app is to help solve issues around student loneliness, by enabling new students to connect with their peers as they mentally prepare for orientation week. Differ chatbots are used not for answering questions (as is the traditional chatbot user experience), but for connecting students with each other in a direct chat, thus providing a “digital icebreaker” that lowers the significant barriers to connect. 

As the app is adopted by students it can be used to push messages via chat, or allow the students to become more engaged by chatting with their peers to create a crossover from social to academic issues.  

By improving student relationships, we expect Differ to help more students find a friend and improve confidence to contribute in the peer learning community. Peer pressure can also act in a positive way to protect and support those who might be wavering, in addition to the formal support services. The modularisation of degree programmes has often inadvertently led to feelings of isolation as ‘tutor groups’ or ‘programme groups’ have largely disappeared in the mist of the ‘pick and mix’ nature of many programmes. I have asked some of my final year students who else they know on their programme and it is often a frighteningly low number. Given that networking is a major benefit of going to university, this seems to be a real failure of current practices that the Differ app will positively address.  

Some context about my institution might help here. We are a small, (around 3,500 students), private not for profit, London university with a 90% international student client base. This can lead to feelings of disorientation when starting their often confusing academic journey in a wonderful but also very distracting environment. Many of our students come from relatively privileged backgrounds where things are done for them. When they join us, it can be quite a shock to need to organise themselves and get quickly into the routine of study. The Differ bot will help such students settle in, make friends quickly and get them ready to commit to their new role and new experiences.

So our pilot kicks off optimistically with our new students from this August and will launch fully in September.  We are hoping it will make a real difference to the initial and longer term experience of our students. I am not aware of anything similar that will have such a positive potential impact, but if you are, I would really like to know. 

If anyone wants further information about our pilot and experience please do contact me via email  

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