Business Case for using Chatbots in the Education Sector


The business case for using chatbots in the education sector is compelling. I am tempted to suggest that every school, college and university in the UK will be using a chatbot within 10 years. So, what is the business case for using a chatbot in an education setting?

Low Setup Costs
The cost of setting up a chatbot is low. Many of the chatbot platform providers offer a fremium model for their services. The comparatively low cost of using a chatbot service is remarkable on a number of levels. Firstly, it offers schools, colleges and universities the opportunity to use artificial intelligence (AI) as a service for the first time to support their students and teachers. Secondly, the democratisation of AI within the education sector will encourage the development of innovative products and services; such as the widening use of adaptive learning platforms and the introduction of personal digital assistants for every student in a school, college or university. And thirdly, the introduction of cognitive services within the education sector will no doubt inform and re-shape many of our preconceived notions, habits and rituals around teaching, learning and assessment.

Return on Investment
The ability to scale a chatbot service enables you to have a high return on your initial investment. When operating at scale, the marginal cost of providing your chatbot service to additional students is close to zero. The ability to offer a chatbot service to a distributed audience is very compelling; especially for larger institutions such as colleges or universities. Chatbots can be deployed quite readily to support discrete services. For instance, at Bolton College, the Ada service will be used to support students on their work placement programme. The service is already used in Moodle, the College's learning management system to support students as they make progress through their online employability tutorials. Plans are also underway to support colleagues with the Ada service as they enquire about staff development opportunities on the campus.

Operating at Scale
Chatbots enable you to operate at scale. Chatbots are designed to respond to thousands of student, staff and visitor enquiries each day. Chatbots are well suited to responding to student enquiries during busy periods in the academic calendar such as induction or during the exam season. These services enable educational institutions to operate at a much higher level of capacity. When a chatbot or a digital assistant is designed well, it behaves and operates as if it was an additional member of the team. This additional member of the team does not rest, it does not sleep, it never forgets and it has access to a large and growing dataset to support the student, teacher, parent or member of the support team.

Improved Access to Data
Information systems in schools, colleges and universities tend to be quite complex and they are not particularly easy to use. Information can be difficult to find and even harder to interpret. Chatbots ease access to data and they offer an easier, simplified and more natural way to access information to support the needs of students, teachers, parents and support teams. At the present moment in time it is perhaps too early to suggest if chatbots or digital assistants will become the dominant conduit or medium that individuals will use to support their studies, teaching or administrative work in an education setting. The following video demonstrates how Bolton College's Ada service is being put to use by students at the College.

Chatbots deliver an improved paradigm for engaging and interacting with day-to-day services and systems; were students, teachers and support teams use conversation to access information and services that are pertinent to their needs and requirements. The design and development of cognitive assistants, is firmly based on how these service can enhance the capabilities of students, teachers, support teams and administrators around the campus. At Bolton College, the hope is that the symbiosis between Ada and student will bring about improved outcomes for our students; and the symbiosis between Ada and teacher will enhance the capabilities of our teachers to support all our students.

As the volume of data continues to grow in the education sector we soon realise that we need to utilise solutions that take us well beyond the traditional suite of services such as business intelligence tools, spreadsheets, databases and graphical dashboards to enable us to find insights, connections and understanding to better support students, teachers and support teams. The majority of schools, colleges and universities have established data-oriented cultures were they have automated many of their day-to-day and cyclical business processes. A growing proportion are beginning to take advantage of predictive algorithms and a smaller number are using machine learning techniques in an endeavour to increase their knowledge and insight to improve student outcomes. 

When coupled with conversational services - discovery on the part of the student or a member of staff at the school, college or university will feel much more natural and intuitive. For example, a student who is about to complete a programme of study, will simply ask the cognitive assistant for the list of potential courses that he or she could progress onto. In the case of a course team, they could ask their cognitive assistant for a likely breakdown of anticipated grades for their cohort of students. Comparisons and analysis of previous academic years could also be undertaken by the cognitive assistant to support the course team.

Out of Office Support
A chatbot never sleeps. The service can respond to enquiries at all hours of the day and even when your campus is closed for the holidays. Where necessary, your chatbot can pass on messages to teachers and support teams; allowing the conversation to continue following the initial contact with your chatbot.

Intelligent Process Automation
Chatbots can be used to automate routine tasks and activities. For instance, your chatbot could automate the delivery of reminders and notifications to students and colleagues. The service could remind students of exam dates and times, submission dates for assignments, work placement dates and many more. When your chatbot service is coupled with natural language generation services it could also be used to deliver daily report cards to all your students and teachers; providing valuable insights to support their studies and teaching. Prescriptive analytics will be much more prevalent when chatbots and digital assistants are rolled out to support students and teachers. This will ease current concerns about the large volume of data and information that teachers and support teams have to manage on a day-to-day basis.

Improved Decision Making
Chatbots ease access to information. This allows students, teachers, parents and support teams to make informed decisions. A student can ask your chatbot about the grade that he or she needs to maintain or improve his or her grade average. Teachers can ask your chatbot about the academic status of each student; and follow up with appropriate support. The following video demonstrates how Bolton College's Ada service can be put to use by teachers to support their students.

At a very simple level algorithms can be written to make decisions for an infinite number of scenarios and settings to support students, teachers and support teams. At Bolton College we use algorithms that act on behalf of the teacher when deciding what learning and assessment materials to present to individual students in an online tutorial. We use algorithms to determine the services that are to be presented to each student when he or she logs on to Bolton College's student home page. The decisions that are made by cognitive systems are evidence based and they are designed to evolve as the environment that they are observing and interacting with changes. The decisions and actions taken by the cognitive service on behalf of the school, college or university will alter and adapt as additional information, behaviour and outcomes are observed for each student at the institution. The decision making capabilities of these micro services enables teachers and support teams to support students at scale; and to do so with ease.

Domain expertise across the Student Life Cycle
Chatbots can be taught to respond to a wide range of day-to-day questions from students, teachers and support teams across all the domains that make up the student life cycle. Your chatbot or digital assistant could respond to course enquiries, course transfers, it could pick up student complaints; and the service could help colleagues deliver careers advice and guidance to students and more. At an operational level each of the services within the student life cycle will make use of agents which are tasked to perform discrete activities to support the end user. For instance, an agent could be tasked with getting more students to apply for a university course. It could do this in a supervised and deterministic manner or it could achieve the same goal using probabilistic reasoning or unsupervised learning. At the same time, each of these agents will need to work cooperatively with one another in order to deliver a unified support package to each student on the campus.

Added Value
Companies that offer learning management systems, library management systems, student information systems, CRMs or building management systems will soon incorporate chatbots into their platforms. A chatbot's ability to offer added value to the student, teacher, parent or members of the student support team will provide a business with a competitive advantage over its rivals. Expect to see a race to incorporate chatbots services into many of the platforms that are commonly used in schools, colleges or universities. If your suppliers do not adopt chatbots to support your students, teachers, parents and support teams you should be entitled to ask why not. One should be wary of having multiple chatbots or digital assistants on your campus. There are issues concerning interoperability. For instance, how will chatbots cooperate with one another and work in tandem to support the needs of students and teachers? It is one of the reasons why Bolton College decided to develop a universal chatbot or digital assistant which would link with all possible systems on the campus.

Supporting and Enhancing Teaching, Learning and Assessment
As well as supporting individuals with day-to-day operational tasks and processes; chatbots can also be used to support and enhance teaching, learning and assessment. Chatbots can use natural language understanding to assess students on your learning management system; enabling your teachers to move away from the traditional multiple choice or drag and drop assessment activities that are typically found on online tutorials. If your chatbot has had a broad range of training your students could use the service to ask subject specific questions; relating to the topics covered on the course. Chatbots can also be used to assess student work. These services can therefore be used to provide immediate and personalised feedback to the student.

Conversational services such as Bolton College's Ada service can be used to enhance the various elements that make up a typical online tutorial. The service is used to support students and teachers with simple question and answer activities in an online tutorial. The following video offers a simple demonstration of the service.

As you can see from the above video, the natural language processing capability of the ask Ada service enables teachers to pose questions that require students to answer in short form. From an instructional design perspective it enables teachers to use a medium that takes them beyond the traditional assessment format of most online tutorials. When Bolton College's learning analytics, adaptive learning and conversational services are coupled together they offer our teachers and instructional design team the opportunity to design online learning and assessment materials that are much more responsive to the needs and demands of individual students - and to do so at scale.

Click here to learn how Bolton College is using chatbots to support its students, teachers and support teams.