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Chatbots aren't new.

The first time I mentioned chatbots (or bot-based technology) on this blog was back in 2016 in a post titled “Messaging is the Past, Present, and Future.”

There are a lot of non-HE chatbots in operation at the moment. For example, the Transport for London TravelBot within Facebook Messenger is daily go-to for anyone who uses the Tube. And the chatbots from Duolingo are a great way to practice learning a new language.

However, as with a lot of buzzword-driven technology (and this isn't a bad thing), chatbots are increasingly becoming part of the mobile-app landscape for higher education.

Whilst there have been chatbots in use at universities in the US, Belgium and Australia, there hasn't been a chatbot in the UK HE sector...until now.

In a recent article in VentureBeat, Staffordshire University was named as being “the first in the [UK] to deploy a digital assistant (chatbot) to support students with their studies and on-campus life.”

Part of the overall Digital Vision at Staffordshire University, the chatbot named “Beacon” is a new digital coach / assistant for students.

According to Andrew Proctor, Director of Digital Services at Staffordshire University, the university's new chatbot is actually “building human relationships rather than replacing staff.” The new AI coaching technology alleviates certain demands on tutors and creates space for deeper connection.

Beacon, the digital coach app for mobile phones, will provide personalised and responsive information on student timetables, enables contact with personal tutors and provide answers to 400 frequently asked questions covering campus facilities and support services as well as other day to day services.

Whilst it's still early days for Beacon, there have been some rave reviews. From the app store there's this Harry Potter inspired comment: “Dumbledore had a Pensieve to help him remember, if you’re a muggle you’ve got Beacon: ‘when is my next lecture’ – a question asked far too often.”

However, there have also been some app reviews that mention that a frequently asked questions (FAQ) webpage could be just as useful.

With more than 6,000 questions asked of Beacon already, the likelihood of it being far more useful than an FAQ is quite certain. Because it is a chatbot that uses AI technology, Beacon will eventually do much more than simply answering questions. A presentation slide deck shared by the university lists planned features including:

  • Curation: Providing relevant content based on previous student behaviour
  • Support: Answering questions and helping with the day-to-day
  • Orchestrate: Completing tasks on behalf of students
  • Learn: Gleaning information to optimise experiences
  • Coach: Guiding students towards an optimum outcome

One of the most interesting aspects of the university's strategy with Beacon is how it will be used to support new students. There are several “nudges” that will take place to check-in with students around key services and activities.

The university's Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) Sue Reece had this to say about the chatbot: “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. Ultimately, we want Beacon to help us to provide students with the best possible experience.”


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