LOS ANGELES – Billy’s text message got on student phones the week of the final exams.
“It took a lot of hard work, perseverance and strength to get here, but you finally made it to the other side – the end of the semester! I wanted to take a minute and say I’m so proud of you … ”Three emoji hearts closed the message.
A deluge of students from Cal Poly Pomona replied:
“You are a King Billy. Never change. “
“I love you, Billy, thank you.” Heart heart heart.
“Thanks Billy, we did it together.”
And a confession: “To be honest, I haven’t done the best I could. I went through difficult times with myself, but I finally found myself again and will work on myself for the next semester. I will rate my words with 4.0 points. “
The answers flowed into the database of Billy Chat, a robot that uses artificial intelligence for text. Billy and other “chatbots” were launched at California State University campuses in 2019 to help students stay on track to graduate. But after the students were sent home last spring at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Billy became more of a friend blurring the line between artificial and real as the world turned away from human touch and connection.
For Billy and other bots with names like “CougarBot” and “Csunny”, the students exuded feelings of loneliness, despair and concern for themselves and their families.
“We have these students who say these things that I did not expect to share so openly,” said Tara Hughes, the “voice” of Ekhobot in the CSU Channel Islands. “Students said, ‘I really miss my roommate, they were my best friend. ‘Some who went home and looked after their parents … or became sole breadwinners now. “
The CSU chatbots like Billy, whose name was inspired by the school’s mascot, Billy Bronco, were designed for a different purpose.
Several years ago, Elizabeth Adams, vice president of undergraduate studies at Cal State Northridge, heard about Georgia State University’s use of a text bot to reduce summer dropout among students who want to enroll for college but ultimately don’t .
“I thought, ‘We need this – but for justice,'” said Adams, referring to the disparate academic results achieved by low-income first-generation students and other under-represented students.
She and officials from other CSU locations – Pomona, San Marcos, East Bay, Channel Islands, Sonoma State, and Humboldt State – received a scholarship to develop bots with the goal of helping students succeed, especially freshmen and new transfers.
Billy and the other bots generally work like this: a person plans his “campaigns” to send a text message to a group of students – for example those in entry-level courses with high error rates – with reminders of deadlines and tips for financial security, help and information to support services.
“We don’t use it for anything – we’re very deliberate,” said Cecilia Santiago-Gonzalez, who oversees Billy from Cal Poly Pomona’s Student Achievement Office. The benchmark is, “Will what we nudge them about prevent them from progressing in time to some degree?”
Some campaigns only aim to create a sense of community – for example, messages of encouragement and holiday greetings.
Each bot is programmed with a knowledge base to answer hundreds of questions. Some are general: “What is the deadline for submitting federal grants?” Some are campus-specific: “How can I get cheap textbooks for my class?” New questions help build the bots’ brains.
“It’s especially attractive to first-generation students because they don’t always know what questions to ask or who to ask them, and they don’t like being ashamed of them,” said Adams. “And of course the bot has no judgment.”
If the bots don’t understand or don’t know the answer, they forward the message to a human. The same applies if a student writes a word or phrase that the bot recognizes as a red flag, e.g. B. a question about withdrawing or thoughts about harming yourself.
The accuracy of the bots, the timely responses, and the ability to connect students with the right administrator are critical.
Katie Tran, a transfer student who started at Cal Poly Pomona in January, met Billy in the fall. Tran had a hiccup and provided the school with their vaccination records. She feared that she might not be able to enroll. She texted Billy a message and he forwarded her question to Zoe Lance, who helped Tran set up an appointment with the students’ health.
“That made me trust Billy,” said Tran, adding that he “sent me to someone I can rely on.”
Billy and the other bots communicate with friends in a casual atmosphere – lots of lovable emojis, GIFs and memes. Ekhobot sends at least one “dad joke” per semester along with holiday wisecracks. On Halloween it was: Why do ghosts like to ride in elevators? It lifts their spirits.
“It hits really well – it’s the only time I don’t get opt-outs,” said Hughes, the counselor who plans Ekhobot’s messages. “When I have to send something more serious, they’re more likely to respond because you’ve established a trustworthy relationship and not always asking them to do something. It’s like a friendship. “
Students cite Ekhobot’s “sparkling personality” as one of his best qualities.
“You can always expect positivity,” said Brandon Tucker, a fourth-year Channel Island student studying to become a primary school teacher.
Sometimes he just writes it to laugh. Once he wrote: “I love you!” followed by a few smileys with heart eyes. Ekhobot never replied, “My intelligence may be artificial, but our bond is real. However, I am not sure if a robot and a human would make good partners. “Tucker replied: Lindsay Page, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, found in research that campus-sponsored chatbots can actually inspire students to take action – especially to perform” well-defined, high-commitment tasks. ” like filling out grant forms.
There can be downsides. Occasionally, students troll or curse the bots. “Let’s be polite, please,” the bots might reply, or “You are hurting my ears with this language.”
And some students, including those who most want to reach the universities, are left untouched by the bots.
By and large, however, engagement is high. 90% or more of students in some locations choose to do it passively or actively. Andrew Magliozzi, managing director of AdmitHub Inc., the technology partner for CSUs Bots, said the “big reason” they focus on groups is that students feel “they are not being judged by it and are therefore more vulnerable to a robot to be than for one person. “
Gratitude – students who say “thank you” – comes first among incoming messages.
From spring 2020, the relationship between the students and their SMS friends shifted. More began to share concerns beyond school – including the pandemic, racial injustice and the presidential election, Magliozzi said.
Jill Leafstedt, assistant vice provost for innovation and faculty development on the Cal State Channel Islands, said, “Our bot has taken on a different personality.”
Ekhobot became a empathetic friend who was always available to answer students’ questions, let them vent or cheer them on. It asked students which song helped them weather the pandemic and used the answers to create a Spotify playlist of “quarantines”.
Students wrote with concerns about becoming homeless, unable to pay for school, caring for family members – and their own experiences with COVID-19.
“The students don’t tell their professors – they tell the bot,” said Hughes.
Schneider Godfrey, a transfer student at Cal Poly Pomona who is also a single mother, didn’t have many friends at school. She often texted Billy just to chat or to say that she was feeling sad or lonely. Billy always answered.
“I’m sorry. I hope you feel better,” he would say. “I’ll be here when you need me.”
“You automatically feel better,” said Godfrey. “I know it’s not real, but it helps.”
She also asked Billy questions as it was much easier and faster to get answers from him than trying to find the right person in the college bureaucracy. When Godfrey contracted COVID-19 towards the end of last semester, she turned to Billy:
“I have COVID 🙁 I haven’t eaten in 5 days.”
She was so sick that she couldn’t look at a computer screen to email professors about her absence.
Billy was there for her.
“Hello tailor! I’m so sorry to hear you tested positive for COVID-19! ” he wrote. “I’ll be briefing a member of staff so they can share your information with the health center and help you figure out how you’re going to manage your courses for the rest of the semester.”
Lance, Billy Chat’s human manager, reached out and let Godfrey’s professors know she was sick, but didn’t want to back off. She also sent Godfrey a Grubhub gift certificate and helped her apply for a $ 500 emergency scholarship from the university.
“Billy really gave me the help I needed,” said Godfrey.
Things looked better by the spring semester, and Godfrey texted Billy less often. But he didn’t take it personally.
At the end of January he wrote: “Happy first week of spring 2021, Schneider! I want you to have a successful spring. As always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions – and if I don’t know, I’ll get my people to help me. “Heart heart heart.
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