The greater schooling sector is turning into more and more commercialised, and competitors between universities for college students – and their all-important tuition charges – has risen accordingly, which means establishments should do all they’ll to make their programs and services as interesting as doable to A-level college students.

That is true of Leeds Beckett College within the north of England, whose scholar recruitment efforts give attention to the usage of rising applied sciences, social media and digital advertising and marketing to make sure its course choices are on the radar of potential undergraduates and A-level college students.

In recent times this work has additionally seen Dougal Scaife, the university’s head of digital experience and engagement, and his workforce transfer to undertake applied sciences that might simplify the Clearing a part of the college utility course of for college students who could have missed out on their first selection in fact.

“When the A-level outcomes come out in the midst of August, the majority of individuals get accepted onto the course they utilized for, however there’s a entire pool of people who find themselves left with out a course, as a result of they didn’t get excessive sufficient grades for the college they initially needed to go to,” says Scaife.

“What occurs is these people begin ringing round and contacting different universities to see if they’ll get a spot elsewhere.

“It’s a frantic day for the scholars, and for us as effectively, as there will probably be 1000’s of individuals looking for locations on programs. It’s in our pursuits to fill these locations as a result of the extra folks we’ve on a course, the cheaper it’s to run,” he provides.

To make the method simpler and fewer anxious for all concerned, for the previous couple of years the college has been on the lookout for methods to higher tailor the expertise to how college students choose to entry and course of data within the 21st century.

“Whereas much more of the [university application] processes are finished on-line now, most universities do it the identical they’ve at all times finished it because the 1950s,” says Scaife.

“What we’ve tried to do is take into account how folks of that age, which is usually round 18 years outdated, use expertise. We got here to the conclusion that numerous them don’t have a tendency to make use of the cellphone that always [to make calls],” he provides.

“They’d a lot quite talk via digital means, utilizing on-line chat-type instruments, so why would we make them ring as much as see if we’ve a spot for them when different strategies exist?”

Introducing Becky the chatbot

This realisation paved the way in which in 2017 for the college to trial the usage of a text-based chatbot to see if it may assist scale back the quantity of calls to its functions workforce.  

The chatbot, named Becky, was accessible via desktop and cell gadgets, and – utilizing a query and reply interface – was capable of discover out a scholar’s and examination outcomes and use this to find out if they need to obtain a provisional supply or not.

It was additionally capable of resolve extra generic, but urgent, queries from potential college students about parts of the appliance course of, college time period dates and their lodging choices.

“Our preliminary feeling was, if we programmed it effectively, it may carry big advantages, as numerous questions folks ask us over the cellphone are simple and may be handled fairly shortly, which means our [operators] are on the cellphone saying the identical issues to folks time and again,” says Scaife

“Our plan was to take a few of the weight off the cellphone calls and reply the essential questions on-line, so the extra difficult questions may nonetheless be handled over the cellphone,” he says.

By the top of the 2017 Clearing interval, Becky the chatbot had notched up 21,000 conversations with potential college students, and helped 200 folks safe locations on Leeds Beckett College programs

By the top of the four-week Clearing interval, Becky had notched up 21,000 conversations with potential college students, and helped 200 folks safe locations on Leeds Beckett College programs.

“College students had been getting gives on programs 24 hours a day,” says Scaife. “At three.30am, we had been seeing folks asking about programs and receiving gives, whereas Clearing at most universities is one thing that simply occurs when the cellphone traces are open, throughout workplace hours.”

The willingness of scholars to make use of the chatbot is all of the extra spectacular due to how little fanfare went into asserting its launch. On the time, its goal was merely to show the idea had legs, and could be financially worthwhile to develop additional.

“We developed the majority of it ourselves, which labored out at about 100 hours of labor, and we paid $30 for the platform we used, and generated £2.4m price of potential income, which was a bonus for our finance director, when it comes to return on funding,” he provides.

Enlisting Alexa’s assist

For the 2018 Clearing window, the college has moved to develop on the preliminary success it has had with its text-based chatbot by extending its capabilities to incorporate voice search and recognition by including the Amazon Alexa digital assistant to its expertise combine.

“We had some assist from the blokes at Amazon, who had been eager to work with us as a result of we had been doing one thing [in the university sector] that nobody else – so far as I’m conscious – had ever finished,” says Scaife.

“Final 12 months, in 2017, nobody else on this planet had finished what we had finished when it comes to [using chatbots] to course of functions, so we needed to remain forward of the curve, and a part of it’s to maintain pushing college recruitment ahead,” he says.

To get the ball rolling, the workforce needed to construct up Alexa’s information of all of the programs Leeds Beckett College gives, what number of UCAS factors are wanted to get accepted on them, earlier than coaching it to softly interrogate college students to collect this data.

“It asks what number of UCAS factors a scholar has [based on the A-level results the student has achieved], and asks what kind of topic space they is likely to be excited by,” says Scaife.

“It then interrogates our database, and checks to see what programs match the variety of UCAS factors the scholar has, and returns three to 4 programs that fulfil that standards, and college students can then ask it for extra details about them.”

The expertise may point out to college students whether or not or not they’re prone to be supplied a spot, earlier than handing over to a member of the admissions workforce to finish the appliance course of.

“We couldn’t undergo the entire course of due to the complexities of the knowledge we needed to collect, so college students would get a name again inside 30 minutes [of ending their engagement with Alexa] to course of the remainder of the appliance,” he says.

“To be trustworthy, we had been nonetheless constructing it the week earlier than it was because of go reside, so if we’d had a bit extra time we’d have been capable of good that course of, however our intention was to deal with it as a analysis and improvement challenge to see if folks would use that form of factor within the first place.”

Taking the stress out of the Clearing course of

On the time of Scaife’s interview with Laptop Weekly, the 2018 Clearing course of was nonetheless in full swing, so it is going to be a while earlier than the college is ready to get a full image of how massive a distinction introducing Alexa to the Clearing combine has made this 12 months, from a quantitative standpoint.

Anecdotally, although, the early indicators counsel the experiment has paid off on various fronts, because the college makes good on its aim to tailor the Clearing course of extra carefully to college students’ most well-liked strategies of communication.

“Some folks would most likely have a look at what we’re doing as an try and be cool and [argue that] it’s not serving to anybody, however I believe this expertise will probably be ubiquitous in a few years’ time”
Dougal Scaife, Leeds Beckett College

Clearing, by its very nature, is usually a really fraught course of for college students, says Scaife, and chatbot expertise has proven to assist alleviate numerous the stress concerned.

“Should you don’t get the outcomes you need, it’s going to be very anxious. You get numerous college students who’re extraordinarily upset. Being pressured to ring up and communicate to any individual may be fairly an emotionally tough factor to do,” he says, “so having the chance to work together with one thing that you just don’t must show emotion to, probably, is of nice profit.”

A lot so, says Scaife, that when the brand new college 12 months is in full swing, the organisation plans to conduct an intensive overview into how the usage of Alexa and its chatbot might be expanded and constructed upon within the coming years.

“It’s a must to preserve shifting ahead, and we’re at all times on the lookout for issues we will use to ease the method because it’s necessary to not make expertise for expertise’s sake,” he says.

“Some folks would most likely have a look at what we’re doing as an try and be cool and [argue that] it’s not serving to anybody, however I believe this expertise will probably be ubiquitous in a few years’ time.”

Main the way in which

Thus far, Scaife says Leeds Beckett College’s forays into synthetic intelligence have caught the eye of different greater schooling establishments, eager to discover new scholar recruitment and outreach strategies.

“There are nonetheless voices within the sector that may say [artificial intelligence] is devaluing the entire utility course of, [and question] how an automatic ‘factor’ could make the nuanced choices that may have an effect on any individual’s life for the following three years,” he says.

However Leeds Beckett College’s personal consumer information, accrued from its Becky chatbot experiment, serves to focus on simply how a lot worth the college sector may stand to achieve by embracing new applied sciences to reinforce the appliance course of.

“What we found with the gives we made via the chatbot is the propensity for college students to take up the supply and really come to the college was nearly double that of the individuals who got here via the standard cellphone technique,” he says.

“The conversion price for the cellphone technique is circa 25-26% and, from the individuals who used the web technique we noticed a 46% conversion price. It was a lot greater and people college students turned up and are nonetheless right here, and had been seemingly proud of that course of and that have.

“It won’t be proper for everyone, however for the individuals who wish to use it, our expertise exhibits they’re much extra prone to comply with via on the supply they obtain and take it extra severely than the individuals who use the cellphone technique,” he provides.

And, as society as a complete turns into more and more snug and accustomed to utilizing voice-activated bots to assist run varied features of their lives, Scaife says the work Leeds Beckett College is doing can be serving to make sure the establishment is primed and able to take full benefit of the development.

“From our perspective, doing this form of stuff now – even on a small scale – is one thing we will construct on, 12 months on 12 months,” he says.

“And when it does turn out to be extra ubiquitous, we could have perfected the stuff we’re already doing, and have one thing that’s actually partaking and delivering what customers need, whereas everybody else continues to be speeding to maintain up.”

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