Dropping a child off at college is a stressful experience. I should know — I dropped off one last week and another today. It’s confusing because everything is so new, your child (who is actually a young adult, how did that happen?) is anxious, and you usually have to settle up on your finances.
This situation happens to be ideal for a chatbot, because the administrative staff is way too busy to handle questions in person or by phone. There might be someone directing you in the parking lot, but not everyone standing around in the student center knows how to submit FAFSA data.
In a distracted culture where we have a boatload of apps on our phones, laptops, and tablets, and an overload of information at every turn, you’d think more colleges would experiment with a chatbot. For starters, they’re easy to create — you can use something like Chatfuel to crank out a basic chatbot in an afternoon. Several companies offer bot creation services, and developers are widely available to do the heavy lifting and make sure the A.I. works.
More than anything, the demographic is a perfect fit for this. As parents and students arrive, the staff could help everyone install a Facebook Messenger bot and give some basic tips. You could tell people to type basic words like “map” or “schedule” to get help. One reason a bot would assist incoming freshmen and every parent is that they’ll have a fairly limited set of questions. You want to know about financial aid, you want to find the lunchroom, and you want to check on parking permits — but you probably don’t need to know anything about, say, the courses available (since you likely already have that arranged).
Not only are the questions predictable, the answers are as well. That means the programming won’t be a chore but the utility is high. Parents and students need the information right when they arrive on campus, and the chatbot could be reused easily for campus visitors, transfer students, and the next semester (and next year). Honestly, if you can think of a scenario where a chatbot makes better sense, let me know.
Of course, a chatbot like this would need to use natural language understanding (NLU). Parents are going to be in a hurry to want to make sure the student has the info they need. They’ll be stressed and slightly agitated. The NLU should look for key phrases like “parking lot” and “financial aid,” and it should be capable of sending campus maps, phone numbers, and contact info. The admin staff should have at least one person available to take over and chat directly with the user. If there’s any confusion, the parents in particular might get frustrated, which is a bad idea considering the high cost of tuition. This means the chatbot should perform all of the basic tasks perfectly, quickly, and succinctly.
One of the main reasons for thinking of this is that I would have used one myself today. It’s a situation where you want immediate, quick information without having to explain all of the background information. You just need the campus map or the schedule for the day — that’s it. You don’t want any extra frills.
I’m curious if anyone will take me up on creating this bot and making it available as a test. The design doesn’t need to be complicated — walk new users through the basic functions, provide quick answers, and send out maps. If you do it, let me know by email so I can try it out.