Three ways AI can support student success and well-being

A virtual assistant helped free up human resources at the University of Galway and revealed student issues that staff could not have predicted

Josephine Walsh's avatar
University of Galway
30 Nov 2023
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A student uses a chat bot while she studies

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With the high cost of living, accommodation worries and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, students are feeling more isolated and disengaged than previous generations. This is evidenced in many surveys, highlighting a growing mental health crisis among students in higher education. Now, more than ever, universities need to closely monitor student well-being and scale up support.

It is crucial that students have easy access to not only resources but, more importantly, to the people who can help them navigate their student journeys successfully.

And as technology has become an indispensable tool in our students’ lives, universities must meet them where they are at and develop technology-based services for their well-being.

As head of student engagement projects at the University of Galway, Ireland, I understand the challenges higher education institutions face in meeting the digital-focused, personalised support that students increasingly seek.

In 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, we started a project that initially set out to deliver a solution that gave easy and instant access to university information. However, our research led us to the potential of AI-driven initiatives that we knew could have a transformative impact on the student experience. Partnering with AI solutions provider Galvia, we developed an AI student engagement platform that is scalable and user-friendly, providing high-quality, on-demand student support that frees our staff to support students with more complex issues.

Based on our experience over the last two years, we have identified a number of benefits of using AI to support student well-being and student success:

1. On-demand support

Imagine having access to vital support at any time, day or night. AI-driven virtual assistants are revolutionising the way students navigate the complexities of university life. At the University of Galway, our AI-driven virtual assistant, named “Cara (meaning “friend” in the Irish language), engages with students through their chosen platforms, providing 24/7 support. It actively responds with the most up-to-date information on topics related to student life, ensuring clarity and understanding. From fees and registration queries to mapping existing support pathways, Cara can also facilitate timely human support when needed. Students never hit cul-de-sacs – there is always an option to access Cara’s human colleagues. 

We keep Cara’s responses relevant and current with the academic year and the student journey by using an adaptive knowledge base. Access to this personalised support alleviates stress by giving immediate answers, ensuring the little things don’t escalate into big things. 

2. Providing targeted support

Understanding the real needs of our students is crucial for universities to provide tailored and effective services. An AI student engagement platform goes beyond connecting with students; it ensures we have our finger on the pulse and truly understand what’s bugging our students! Through on-demand surveys, sentiment analysis and real-time analysis of trending topics and student queries, Cara has highlighted unexpected issues that we would not have identified previously. For example, we removed fees from our featured questions on Cara after the payment deadline. However, when Cara continued to get inquiries about fees it was clear there was a cohort of students in financial difficulties looking for support, so we reinstated fee-related features. Similarly, we found that during the quiet summer period students engaged with Cara more than we expected. We now feature questions related to the main concerns that came up in those questions: support available over the summer and how to get a summer job.

Our assumptions about the issues that students face have been challenged and we now have evidence to support innovation in service provision, our student communications are more targeted and we proactively address emerging student needs – such as when we saw students asking Cara about places to study and we realised there was a lack of study spaces during peak demand periods. We now continuously advocate for increased study spaces, challenging how space is used throughout the year with a view to increasing both study and social spaces all year round.

AI-powered virtual assistants providing personalised support have the potential to identify students at risk of non-progression, allowing universities to reach out to struggling students. This ultimately contributes to higher retention and progression rates and demonstrates to students that we care about their success.

3. Streamlining staff effort

Administrative tasks and information management often consume a significant amount of staff time and resources. However, with AI-powered solutions, staff can streamline their efforts and focus on what truly matters: providing quality services and engaging with students.

The content management system (CMS) we developed acts as a catalyst for staff efficiency. By automating responses to routine questions and simplifying content creation, the CMS reduces administrative overheads. This system allows vital information such as fee deadlines, exam supports, study spaces and more to be easily updated by staff and accessed by students. Not only does this equate to hundreds of hours of staff time, but it also enhances overall operational efficiency. By liberating staff from repetitive queries, we have enabled them to build more meaningful relationships and deliver personalised support to students.

As head of student engagement projects at the University of Galway, I have witnessed the transformative impact of AI-driven initiatives to support student well-being and student success. By harnessing the power of AI, universities can create a more supportive and engaging student experience. And the key to achieving these benefits is a reliable solutions provider that listens, collaborates and shares your commitment to student well-being and student success.

Josephine Walsh is head of student engagement projects at the University of Galway, Ireland.

The University of Galway won the Technological or Digital Innovation of the Year category at the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. See the full list of winners.

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