Penn State World Campus pioneers using AI for academic advising support services

By answering routine questions with a virtual assistant built on Google Cloud, Penn State World Campus’s academic advisers can spend more time with their students.

The students at Penn State World Campus take online courses from anywhere in the world. They juggle jobs, family obligations, and sometimes military service. That means they need flexible access to academic services and staff. Dawn Coder, Director of Academic Advising & Student Disability Services at Penn State World Campus, says, “time management is an issue for our students. We want them to get faster answers to their questions.” As part of an internal self-assessment, Coder and her team of 48 full-time academic advisers spent a year tracking their workflows to make their services as flexible and efficient as possible. They discovered that staff consistently fielded the same questions over and over, often spending fifteen to thirty minutes collecting information for the answers.

We don’t know any other academic advising programs using AI. We’re leading the way because student success is so important to us. We want the student’s experience to be top-notch.

Dawn Coder, Director of Academic Advising & Student Disability Services, Penn State World Campus

Improving support for students and saving time for advisers

To solve that problem Coder and her department embarked on a project in June 2019 to use artificial intelligence to automate responses to routine queries so advisers could devote more time to one-on-one student support. After their call for proposals, three companies presented demos. Coder reports that Quantiphi, a Google Premier Partner for Data Analytics, Machine Learning, and Marketing Analytics, and Google Cloud stood out for their fast turnaround and passion for higher education.

“Google and Quantphi met all our requirements, including security and FERPA compliance,” Coder says. “That’s really important to us. We started in June and it was completely built and ready to go in September. That’s extremely impressive.”

After formalizing a service agreement with Quantiphi in February 2020, the department rolled out the innovative virtual assistant to automatically handle student emails about re-enrollment, change of major or campus, and deferments. Testing has already shown that the virtual assistant is about 86% accurate at identifying intents and providing the correct responses, which improves as the model processes more questions and learns from them.

With the virtual assistant, students email their questions to advisers through a secure platform with Single Sign On authentication. Dialogflow, Google’s natural language processing tool, then analyzes them, gathering relevant information like the student’s last degree, enrollment dates, and campus. The FERPA-protected student data remains on Penn State’s own secure, local student information system (SIS) database. Quantiphi trained Dialogflow on the criteria to use and designed a custom interface to generate clear, concise, and standardized responses for the defined categories of questions. Any questions outside of the training criteria automatically get sent on to advisers, with the student’s information pre-collected for them. “Our advisers are really excited,” Coder says. “They like that the information is all in one place. They used to have to click on many different screens.” The built-in reporting feature tracks how long each question takes to answer and compares it to the manual response times, creating a clear metric for time saved.

Leading the way with AI

For now, Quantiphi is managing technical support during the rollout, but the goal is to train Penn State World Campus staff to take that over. The team plans on enhancing the user interface and adding four more categories of questions later in the year. Coder’s longer-term hope is to extend the virtual assistant into other World Campus departments and administrative tasks, like the registrar and admissions offices. She expects administrative efficiencies from these workflow improvements, but points out that “our end goal is always improving student services. We need to ensure that our staff has the time to dedicate to students, to be proactive rather than reactive. This project allows advisers to focus on important areas for students instead of manual tasks, so they can have better relationships and quicker response times. They can work closely with students who need extra help.” Eventually, she envisions a general virtual assistant as a one-stop source for centralized student information for staff throughout the campus.

In the meantime, Coder has advice for other university leaders embarking on their first AI project: “It’s important to have a clear business plan for what you want the AI to do,” she says. “Having a very clear focus allowed us to stay on track and on pace.” Finding a vendor you can trust is also crucial: “Quantiphi was open and honest about what they could and couldn’t do, which defined our scope.” Finally, she recommends thinking beyond the present to the future: what kind of support might you need down the road? “Advising will always need humans because it’s about relationships,” she concludes. “That won’t ever change. But we can scale to do more with current staff. We don’t know any other academic advising programs using AI. We’re leading the way because student success is so important to us. We want the student’s experience to be top-notch.”

To hear more about how Penn State World Campus got started with AI, see this blog post.

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