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Chatbots, digital assistants — whatever you want to call them — seem to be reaching into every nook and cranny of the internet. Ordering pizza? Yup. Sorting out your home insurance? You bet. Automating enterprise processes? Certainly. There are even companies that specialize in helping other companies develop their own customer service chatbots.

Educational institutions present a burgeoning landscape for automated conversations to flourish in, judging by recent developments. Indeed, a U.K. university is thought to be the first in the country to deploy a digital assistant to support students with their studies and on-campus life.

Staffordshire University, located primarily in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, this month launched a chatbot app called Beacon for Android and iOS. The 15,000 students who attend the university can type or use their voice to find their professor for a specific subject, check what (and where) their next lecture is, and get answers to some 400 commonly asked questions, covering topics like facilities and support services.

Above: Staffordshire University: Automated answers

Students can request information on the location of specific lecture halls or find out what time the library opens and how much it costs to use the printer.


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Above: Staffordshire University is using a chatbot app called Beacon

The app was developed and deployed in conjunction with cloud services provider ANS Group, and it is hosted on Microsoft’s Azure platform.

“The new app will help us to build positive relationships with our students and even flag up those who may need additional support, so that we can better cater for their needs,” said pro vice-chancellor for student experience Sue Reece. “Ultimately, we want Beacon to help us to provide students with the best possible experience.”

Chatbots in education

A number of chatbots have already been used on university campuses. Back in 2017, the University of Canberra in Australia added a couple of digital assistants to benefit both students and staff. Bruce, as one of the chatbots is affectionately known, scans content from the university’s intranet to answer staff questions, including queries about vacation, pay, travel, faculties, and filing IT support tickets.

Lucy, as the student-focused chatbot is known, also crawls internal websites to answer questions covering topics like enrollment, schedules, car parking, and support services.

Above: Lucy the chatbot working at the University of Canberra

The University of Canberra is currently in the process of developing additional chatbots to answer general questions from prospective students, while a new “results bot” could help students figure out whether their ATAR score is good enough to get them into a specific program. Other universities, such as the University of Adelaide, are also using chatbots to help deal with surges in questions from prospective students when they receive their ATAR scores.

Elsewhere, Boston-based AdmitHub has been working to install its conversational AI technology on numerous campuses across the U.S., including at Arizona State University and the University of Memphis.

To combat “summer melt,” or high school graduates failing to matriculate in the fall after successfully gaining admission, Georgia State University deployed a virtual assistant called Pounce to engage prospective students and ensure they turn up as planned. Pounce basically enables the university to “converse” with students at a basic level without having to hire more staff, as well as allowing students to ask questions at all hours.

According to AdmitHub, of the more than 50,000 messages sent to students, less than 1 percent required follow-up responses from human university staff.

Above: The Pounce app was used to help enroll students at Georgie State University

Going deeper

Staffordshire University is hoping Beacon will improve and become the go-to source for students seeking information on just about anything. For example, it can help recently relocated students figure out the best places to go in their new locale — though most people are probably likely to use Google for that kind of information.

Above: Beacon: Where can I go in Stoke-on-Trent?

It’s worth noting that Beacon hasn’t been warmly received by everyone in its short life, judging by some of the comments in the app review section. One user wrote:

Just not even remotely useful, end up using the staff’s uni site to get information I want half the time. A very well built FAQ Web page could replace this.

Another opined:

Don’t see how this is at all more useful than a FAQ with a mascot.

And that is one of the problems many people have with today’s digital assistants — they’re just not good enough yet, and they may lead companies or universities to forgo investment in other, more useful, information services. Sure, the likes of Google Assistant and Alexa are fantastic in their broader context, telling you what the weather will be like tomorrow or serving up soccer scores. But in smaller, internal environments, such as university campuses, getting precise responses tailored to an individual may not be quite so easy.

Staffordshire University is adamant that chatbots are a big part of its future and that Beacon will get smarter as more students use it. The university plans to introduce additional features, such as lecture reminders and advice on books and study aids.

“Over time, we expect that students will have more daily interactions with Beacon than anyone else at the university, so it will be one of our most important tools,” added Andrew Proctor, director of digital services at the university.

“Going to university can be stressful and is often the first time a teenager will move out of their home to live somewhere new. Beacon is there to help them; it’s not just a Q&A bot. In Welcome Week, it can recommend societies [that] will help them make friends, and [it] will eventually guide new students toward services, if they need more support during the first few months. It will ask them how their lectures are going to ensure that if they are struggling, we can help them more quickly and in the best way.”

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