How digital humans can be (and ARE being) used in higher education

The more engaged and supported a student is, the better they learn. So, here are five ways digital humans are doing just that.

October 1, 2021
How digital humans can be (and ARE being) used in higher education

Entire movies have been written around charismatic professors who change students’ lives and impart great wisdom. Like in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams guides a student (the eponymous Will Hunting) through his formative years and unearths his buried potential.

We understand deeply that teachers, lecturers and professors are an extraordinarily impactful, central part of the higher learning experience. They grip students with their personality, character and empathy – not to mention their knowledge and expertise.

So much so, perhaps you didn’t realise that Robin Williams’ character was actually not Will’s teacher, but his psychotherapist. We just remember it that way because of his caring, supportive nature towards Will. A Mandela effect brought on by our knowledge of many great teacher-student relationships.

Some 30+ years after the setting for Good Will Hunting and the education sector has evolved. We’ve seen education technology (edtech) dramatically change the way students learn, teachers teach, and higher education facilities… erm… facilitate.

But it remains true, among all this change, that the more engaged and supported a student is, the better they learn.

Good Will Hunting GIF

When personality and technology work together

People learn best when there’s a supportive, helpful, caring personality helping them. And while education-sector chatbots and other automated tools have their administrative purposes, they’re not built to engage in the way students need.

Instead, let us put forward a case for digital humans. Digital humans in education environments have the potential to make a real difference in the learning process, but also throughout the other layers of student support and administration.

As a type of conversational AI, they can replicate some of the face-to-face connections that have always been so essential for effective learning and student assistance. By responding with facial expressions and an appropriate voice, digital humans can provide the support and empathy that students (and people) need to feel seen and heard.

This type of two-way conversation and emotional connection is valuable in a number of ways, virtually and on-campus. That’s why many in the education sector are deploying digital humans as we speak, in fascinating roles.

There’s a lot to unpack; but let’s focus on some of the bigger, most pressing and more popular use cases for digital humans in higher education. Here are five to get things started:

1. Digital humans are awake when teachers aren’t

If you deny ever finishing an assignment at 4 a.m. on the day it was due, you were either a model student or not telling the truth. It’s a common trope of tertiary study for a reason, with StudyMode finding that over half of all students say they’re most likely to finish an assignment the night before it’s due.

We’re sure that seems like a great idea to the students (and as reformed procrastinators ourselves). But what happens if they run into trouble? In courses with a set syllabus, a digital human can help students understand topics as they’re completing their homework or other assignments, picking up on lecture notes and other materials and delivering them in an engaging manner.

Think of administration, too. If you remember your panicked student days worrying what time your essay is due and where you hand it in to, imagine being able to ask someone on your laptop screen right there and then – someone who can give you an empathetic, supportive interaction as they give you the information you need.

Of course, that includes similar support during normal hours too. Not to mention that using conversational AI in education contexts like this also benefits teaching staff. But we’ll come to that shortly.

With hundreds of students usually supported by a lecturer and a couple of teaching assistants, digital human can be a source of -around-the-clock support, while still supplying students with engaging learning experiences.

2. … And they speak more languages

On top of this, digital humans are multilingual from birth.

Few of us will know how difficult it is to learn higher education subjects in a second language. An interesting insight from Top Universities describes some of the differences between learning another language and learning IN another language. Everything from accents to register and colloquialisms can throw you off.

By their very nature, conversational AI tools can provide greater support to international students who might be learning in a language other than their mother tongue. These people make up an increasingly large percentage of the student cohort – up to 25% in some cases.

Any extra support that sets them up for success will be valuable to both the learner and the educators. That could be as a translation tool, a campus assistant who can speak in their language, or just as a companion who can give them a reprieve and offer to chat in their first tongue. There are plenty of ways that support can materialize in higher education.

Fun fact/shameless brag: UneeQ digital humans: speak 43 languages in 50 local dialects, and understand 74 languages (at the time of writing). They can also support any other language or dialect through custom TTS (text-to-speech).

College drop out rates 2021 stats

3. College AI assistants help students acclimatize…

The move from high school to tertiary education is massive. Along with the step-up in subject-matter difficulty, college life is likely to become the first real taste of adult independence for most students. That’s made doubly hard in places like the US where it’s common for people to move away from home for the first time.

Even for students that don’t leave home, college is a whole new world of managing dense class timetables, confusing campuses and teachers who aren’t going to chase them for homework anymore. Tertiary education providers make great efforts to orient new students and provide support; but unfortunately, more support is generally needed.

In the US, the overall college dropout rate for undergraduate students is 40%, with nearly 54% indicating they left because they were unable to balance work and school.

As Forbes notes, conversational AI in the form of college chatbots are already being used to help students adapt. Use cases include helping students who are homesick, struggling to make friends or having issues with their roommates.

While there are support staff to help with these concerns, people don’t always feel comfortable speaking to others, and digital humans offer a level of judgement-free support that helps people open up. It works in healthcare and digital humans are making a difference in financial literacy, too. The same type of support can be offered to college students.

4. …As well as helping students with pesky admin

Part of the transition from home life to college life is the amount of admin students suddenly take on for themselves. From managing schedules and deadlines to balancing the bank account.

Upgrading college chatbots into more friendly options can at least help with the dull, disengaging college-related admin.

Being able to pop open a laptop, visit an on-campus kiosk or swipe through on your phone to ask one of these companions “where is lecture building 303?” or “when do I need to enrol for semester 2?” and getting personalized answers is not only ideal, it’s happening today.

In fact some of these campus support use cases are some of the first being solved by digital humans, with the smart people at Bolton College in the UK integrating digital humans into their Ada platform.

5. We need to help education staff overcome burnout

Won’t someone please think of the children? … And also the teachers, administrators and other staff working in higher education today?

These personnel are responsible for supporting huge groups of people with wildly different needs. From first-year students looking for enrollment advice to international students coming to grips with a new culture. And, of course, the odd disgruntled parent.

It’s no wonder then that University Affairs in Canada reported that college staff across the country are stressed due to high workloads. In fact, more than half (53.4%) of the 921 staff members surveyed reported serious or very serious psychological distress.

Of course, this kind of distress is not brought on by one single issue. However, the study’s author did attribute excessive employee workload as the most significant factor in college staff burnout.

Employee burnout is an issue close to our hearts – and we’ve written about it numerous times in areas like helping to reduce healthcare worker burnout.

We feel that if a college’s AI assistant can take some of that pressure off staff as a result of its student support, it’ll be an important step in the right direction. For that, we created a framework for organizations wishing to use a hybrid workforce of chatbots, digital humans and real staff members that can help triage support, and spread the workload between automated technologies and real people.

You can find out more in our free eBook, Building a Digital Workforce, or get in touch to talk through the problem and whether you think we can help.

What do you think? Embracing the benefits of digital humans in higher education

Higher education institutions are grand and complex organisations, so it’s difficult to account for the full range of applications of college AI assistants into a mere blog article.

So, we’re here to listen. What do you think?

Do you see the potential for offering students human interfaces to help them answer their burning questions?

Can you see a near future where multilingual digital humans help students acclimatize to university life, and give them guidance on the campus, their courses or curriculum? Do you consider there to be a benefit of judgment-free conversational support for young people – a demographic infamous for being closed-off when speaking about their problems openly?

We can. But we’d love to hear your thoughts.