Published: 7 Minutes read

Creating Space to Design Better Student Services

University student

Designer and Brand Consultant, Alan Davis, reimagines student life with AI and how its a vital tool to design better student services.

My children think I’m old. I have some grey hair, and I went to University in the late 1990s. There you go, I am old! When I was a student, university life happened on campus. Learning, lectures and meetings were generally face to face. The only distraction for students was either the local pub, the pool room or the canteen. Email was new on the scene (who remembers Hotmail?). Mobile phones were also new on the scene, and within a very short space of time every student had their own. I loved my Nokia 5110, which was pre snake and predictive texting. Artificial Intelligence was the unsettling stuff of Science fiction films such as Terminator 2: Judgement Day (I still wonder if a supercomputer by the name of Skynet will someday destroy the earth?) and The Matrix. At college, we were pretty much left to our own devices, learning from each other and competition for top marks was pretty healthy within each college group. I don’t recall much engagement from the student services or University management team. I met the student registrar only twice; once on registration day and then on graduation day, and the University Director spoke to us only once during my whole time as a student. 

Opportunities Abound for AI at Universities

It’s over 20 years since I graduated, and recently I’ve been thinking about life at my old university, and what kind of university experience the students of today are having? Are things as they were, or has how the college is run moved with the times?

In those 20+ years I’ve designed brand and user experiences for a range of clients, and when I look back over the successful projects, what’s clear to me is that the success of any designed experience is only as good as the brief which informs the design process, and this is heavily influenced by the quality of research which goes in to defining the brief. Understanding the project context and the challenges faced by the people at the centre of the brief is vital to a successful outcome, no matter what you are designing, and who it is intended for? A key question to yourself ask when setting out to improve something by design is: Do we know what life is really like right now for that person? What keeps them awake at night? What makes them laugh and what brings them joy? 

Thinking back to my student days, I found myself asking, how deeply does my old university understand the needs and behaviours of today’s students? What does student services look like today? Is the university available to students at a time when it suits them, whether that is 6am or 10pm? Has the course changed to meet the demands of a digitally literate student population – where most students probably have their own devices with industry standard software subscriptions. They’re probably finding news and information from a long list of external sources beyond the college library, and they’re probably more connected to the global community than many of their lecturers.  These same students are facing into a demanding employment environment, with huge opportunities to carve their own path as industry leaders and innovators – and if they have their heads in the right gear, will the university know how to support them beyond what it set out in the college curriculum? 

If the answer is no, or not very well – I think the University should consider going back to that vital step of research, to get under the skin of what it is really like to be a student at that university, and when they know and understand more about the student experience on offer, then set about redesigning it to improve and enrich that experience. There are many ways to carry out this type of research. Traditionally the survey would have been the go to resource for this type of research, however with advances in technology, and the growing bank of digital information and data generated by the student population, there is a huge opportunity to extract powerful research insights with the right tools. 

How do you
design better student services with AI?

I recommend the following to get started on an AI approach to research:

  1. Identify the most frequented student touch points. If students are chatting on Facebook messenger or distracted by WhatsApp, connect with them through that platform and be available 24/7 through a combination of ‘live’ responses and automated Artificial Intelligent (AI) based conversation. It’s important to be always available, whether it’s 6am or 11:00pm, even when the student services centre is closed because I’m pretty sure that is when students are online and looking for answers. And when a question about college life comes up student services can be the first to respond with the right support which is fitting to the tone and urgency of the conversation. 
  2. Get deep visibility of university performance at a course, subject and student level to align with your college ranking strategy. Know which students are meeting the course requirements and which students are falling below the line. This can be achieved by using Artificial Intelligent (AI) to monitor who is accessing the course materials (usually the library or medical centre), which students have paid their fees on time and which students have attended lectures and submitted their papers on time. This is a complex task, and it needs to be done in a timely manner. The data probably already exists within the University technology stack – but not necessarily in one easy to reach place. Unfortunately by the time this information is collated and curated, it is already stale and of little use in building a live picture of university performance right now. However as I suggested previously, some AI tools have the potential to change this. 
  3. Finally, I would recommend that the time saved by deploying an AI-powered automated conversational interface (such as a chatbot) at the right student touch points, could then be used to put time and resources into designing and iteratively improving the quality of student engagement, which is not only good for the college, but also more rewarding for the team at student services. 

University of Galway Deploys AI-Powered Student Services

At Galvia we did just that in a hugely successful project with University of Galway in a project which has increased student engagement and saved countless hours for the student services team. We were able to meet students where they were at a time that suits them by deploying a conversational AI bot named ‘Cara’ which interacts with students through WhatsApp at anytime of the day or night.  Read our Success Story in full.

We were able to harvest data from these student conversations into an easy-to-use content management system which gives student services and university management full visibility of the student sentiment at any particular moment in time. With AI, gone is the need for countless mind-numbing hours managing a slush pile of emails. Now student services at the University of Galway are innovating. For example they have recently opened a brand new student services centre which allows the students to drop in and have any queries answered on the spot by real people, with the right answers. 

And it continues to improve. Cara is constantly learning, and can detect difficulties before they arise. Students who are veering off course are highlighted to management, and the right people notified to intervene and offer the best support to put that student back on course to successfully completing their degree. 

The source data is there. The tools to harvest are there. Let’s design better student services to give today’s students the support and tools they need to be their very best selves.

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