AI-Powered Chatbots in Higher Ed: How to Prepare Your Institution


Colleges and universities face competition from more than other institutions. Rising stakes and changes in the economy, access to college campuses, and shifting dynamics around the globe challenge the traditional student experience. Student engagement and retention services are more important than ever before.  

To have a winning student success strategy, institutions need to evaluate the gaps they face in supporting, engaging, and communicating with students. But institutions don’t always have the resources to scale and meet student needs in a proactive way.  

For institutions looking to expand their ability to serve students and improve their experience, AI-powered chatbots are a natural fit—a solution worth a deeper look. 

We recently worked with our partners at Education Dive to create a playbook for higher education to understand the value of AI-powered chatbots and how to successfully implement this valuable resource at your own institutions.  

Get the guide: navigating AI in higher education

We’re going to share some of those insights with you here, but before we dive into the how, we need to understand the what. Learning some of these key terms will help you navigate artificial intelligence in higher ed and better prepare you for successful implementation at your institution.  

Key terms for navigating AI for higher education 

Conversational AI: a set of technologies that enable computers to understand, process, and respond to voice or text inputs in natural ways, and is typically used in conjunction with bots. 

Machine Learning: the process of developing computer programs that can access data and use it to learn and make predictions without being explicitly programmed to do so. 

Natural Language Processing: the process by which a computer looks for statistically significant patterns and considers factors such as synonyms, canonical word forms, grammar, slang and more to understand human language. 

Dataset or Answer Bank: the data sources a chatbot uses to source answers to student questions, such as a website or student information system platform. 

Sentiments Analysis: a computer’s ability to gauge tone and connotation by sensing emotion and reacting with emotion or flows. 

Preparing your institution for AI-powered chatbots 

While AI, machine learning, and bots may all seem like trendy technology buzz words, they have an extremely powerful appeal to higher education: chatbots can quickly and easily clear roadblocks for students, acting as the first line of response that enables escalation to necessary staff or services when needed. Sophisticated AI-powered chatbots understand a student’s intent when they ask a question. Students get the exact answer they need without having to read through every page of your website—a valuable asset to your student success strategy.  

To add a chatbot to your support services, you want to be intentional about your implementation to ensure success. Below are five steps to prepare your institution and your staff members for AI-powered chatbots. 

Coach your team through common AI misconceptions  

It’s all too easy to borrow assumptions from media headlines, especially when it comes to technology your staff may not have experience with. Some employees may shudder at the thought of bringing AI-powered technology into the fold, thinking “that means automated technology will take over human jobs, right?” While it’s not necessarily true, it’s certainly an objection you’ll face. AI technology doesn’t replace team members; it frees them from transactional and repetitive tasks so they can focus on more complex inquiries that build relationships with students. 

To prepare your team for your chatbot implementation, address assumptions head-on and explain how AI will affect their work. Start with some of the most common assumptions about AI in higher education and the truth behind them. You can see more examples of common assumptions in the chatbot playbook. 

 Build your chatbot’s brand 

Building a chatbot to be a bland receptacle of knowledge is a lost opportunity to build engagement with your students. Instead, program your bot to deliver information with a voice and tone that’s unique to your institution. This can often be the defining factor in students’ having a positive experience with your bot, even if they don’t get all their questions answered right away. Matching your chatbot to the overall voice and tone of your institution allows you to create a unified online student experience. 

Gather and verify your data sources 

An AI-powered chatbot gathers answers to student questions from the data sets you provide. These sources can be as simple or complex, from public web page to your back-end student information systems data. But if you feed incorrect or outdated data to your chatbot, that’s exactly what it’s going to feed to your students. 

Create chatbot scripts based on your institution’s unique student needs  

AI-powered chatbots can capture a wealth of institutional information and make that information accessible at any time. But this sense of infinite opportunity can make it difficult to decide where to start. For most institutions, it will make sense to start with the 100 most common student questions you receive, then build out your chatbot scripts from there.  

Build your chatbot with expansion in mind 

Even though it makes sense for most institutions to start with a small implementation, you should always build your AI-powered chatbot foundation with the potential to expand. Chat is just one mechanism of AI support, and in the future, you may want to add in other ways modern students expect to interact, such as social media, AI assistants like Alexa and Google, and SMS text. How you expand your chatbot will also expand how it supports the entire student life cycle.  

Dive deeper

Institutions across the world are looking for ways to engage students in order to increase enrollment and retention. Chatbots can help bridge the gap of institutional silos and communication challenges in order to increase student enrollment and retain students on the path to success. AI allows your institution to improve the way it serves students and makes sure the interactions students have with your support team are positive, responsive, and helpful. Chatbots are an excellent tool to relieve a burden from your support staff while improving the student experience.  

To learn more about AI-powered chatbots and how to successfully prepare your staff and institution for implementing this tool, download our playbook, Student Services Breakthrough: Preparing Your Higher Ed Institution for AI-Powered Chatbots