The chatbot team uses a conversational, peer-to-peer tone and fun images such as Gifs to help personify the SVSU mascot. “I have to think about it in the sense of, I’m actually texting my friends,” says Deschermeier, “not that I’m SVSU emailing students. That’s not what students want to read in a text message from the chatbot. They’re turned off by messages with an overly formal tone; they don’t even bother looking at them. I want Coop to act like he’s your friend, like he’s at your level, but he’s the knowledgeable friend. He can get you access to everything.”
Wagner credits Deschermeier for the tone of Coop’s messaging, which makes first-year students in particular feel comfortable seeking Coop’s help when they experience academic, financial, and/or emotional challenges in their transition to college. He has found that when users need someone or something, they don’t hesitate to ask the chatbot. “Coop isn’t only an informational resource,” explains Wagner. “He is also part of a student’s peer group. The chatbot is an important tool in light of the struggles students face while acclimating to higher ed.”
Although Coop most frequently sends reminders about key events, initiatives, and deadlines, the chatbot occasionally checks in with students about how they are doing overall. “I’ve definitely talked to some students who only want the chatbot to send them the important information,” says Deschermeier, “but a majority of the students like the fact that Coop checks in. He isn’t only about ‘Here’s the information you need.’ He is also about ‘I’m your friend. I’m here for you. How are things going?’”
Deschermeier recently sent out a message asking students how happy they were feeling, for example. She followed up with the students who responded that they were unhappy, sharing mental health resources with them. Although Deschermeier recognizes that she cannot serve as a professional resource in every area in which students are struggling, she finds it rewarding to connect them with the right people on campus who can serve as those resources: “I don’t have counseling experience, but I do have friendship experience.”
SVSU offers a variety of support services for students, including the Mental Health and Wellness Center, SVSU’s Employee Assistance Program, the Student Counseling Center, the Academic Advisement Center, the Campus Financial Services Center, and multiple tutoring centers.
One of the Cardinal Solutions proposals was to build stand alone chatbot app.
Among the most important roles Coop plays, he reaches out to degree-seeking students who have not registered for courses within the expected timeframe. “The bot is able to reach out to students who are not registered yet,” says Deschermeier. “This is what contributed to our increase in retention, which was absolutely amazing. Last year I sent out a non-registered message to upperclassmen specifically since we had expanded to them. I received a 50% response rate out of sending messages to 670 students.”
The bot also improves students’ financial literacy. Through Deschermeier’s efforts, Coop has reached out to students who still need to fill out the FAFSA, for whom a tuition payment deadline is approaching, and who may be eligible for grant opportunities such as the CARES Act.
“The chatbot isn’t some type of revelation,” says Wagner. “It’s just a normal conversational tool, but people have responded better to text messages, and we get great data back from those exchanges. When we talk now about the best way to reach students, the chatbot always rises to the top.” ■