Feb 23, 2023

Who supports the support staff in higher education? A digital solution to a human challenge

Let’s look into how digital humans can help higher-education support staff – by helping students feel seen, heard, helped and valued.

Who supports the support staff in higher education? A digital solution to a human challenge

We’ve recently looked at how digital humans in higher education can be really valuable for new students and the lecturers. By humanizing conversational AI in the education sector, the heart of college systems can be presented to students in a more natural and engaging way, guiding them through their education.

Now, we’re diving a stage deeper into the university biome. Because university ecosystems are much more than just students and lecturers. Support staff need help to do their best work, too.

Who supports those whose job is to support others? And what happens when these people are not given that support – what happens to those support systems, and how does it impact the whole university biome?

Technology can do more to help; it will do more to help. And there’s a real need to start confronting these challenges now, in 2022 and beyond.

While there’s no one silver bullet, we believe digital humans offer something other technologies cannot.

What’s more, they hit upon some of our basic human desires – to be seen, heard and valued. Let’s look into how digital humans can help higher-education support staff.

What challenges do support staff face?

A report from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education (CHE) found a number of really important challenges for student support services – and also some great recommendations on how to approach them.

Of these challenges, a few recurring problems stand out. Namely that student support teams have:

  • A one-size-fits-all approach to supporting students
  • A transactional approach to student support
  • Inconsistency in their approach to student support.

Colleges and universities are extremely busy and dynamic places, full of staff and students all operating at varying degrees of stress, skill and urgency.

Support staff themselves have different tenures, skills, experiences, personalities and hundreds of other differentiators. It’s a double-edged sword; a variation in approaches can lead to an inconsistent and overall worse student experience.

At the same time, a one-size-fits-all approach to helping students (while perhaps most efficient) ignores what works for students on a more individual level. Think of all the possible issues students might be dealing with. And now imagine all these people are lined up to speak to a person behind the student support desk. For student support staff, it doesn’t take much imagination; that’s reality.

Which leads to the third challenge: a transactional approach to student support. Almost two-thirds (65%) of education facilities have this challenge. Relationship building can often take a backseat when transactional tasks like registration and enrolment can be solved with a deli-counter approach. But students need deeper support, and staff want to give it – the problem is time.

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How can student support be improved?

The same report makes valuable recommendations for faculties to improve their student support. Some of the approaches to solving the above problem include:

  • Providing more personalized support at scale
  • Adopting a developmental coaching support approach
  • And aligning support functions around a shared methodology.

For those interested in the operational change needed for such renovations, the full report can be found here.

But we want to talk specifically around the benefit of conversational AI for a minute. Because the more we delve into these specific challenges, the more we feel digital human technology can make a difference.

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Using digital human technology to improve student support

The unfortunate truth is that students who need the most assistance aren’t getting it. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that staff feel like they have a difficulty in connecting with students digitally and aren’t using the technology options available to them.

More natural technology holds an advantage. Digital humans listen, speak and hold two-way interactions with students. They converse in an accessible and engaging way – and they can do so at scale with hundreds of students at once.

Considering the challenges above, the advantages of using a digital human for student support include:

  • Personalization to a student’s needs, when those are known and solvable through conversational AI interactions
  • The ability to solve transactional tasks with personality, giving real staff the time to solve more complex support requests
  • Absolute adherence and consistency in how support is provided to students.

Considering the growing prevalence of chatbots in higher education, it’s clear there’s still an opportunity to take these kinds of applications further. We can build them into multichannel systems that can provide valuable support to students and take some of the pressure off support staff.

Multichannel support provides more opportunity for connection, resulting in much better engagement between staff and students. When a team at Arizona State University sent a welcome message from a chatbot to their student body, they weren’t just interested in the questions the chabot could answer, but the ones it couldn’t. Concerns from international students needing detailed help, and others looking for financial assistance could be referred directly to the support staff that could provide a helping hand.

But chatbots fail at being friendly and likable – they’re limited by their lack of humanity. Digital humans are being used in higher education settings to offer support in a more natural, fun and engaging way.

Would students use a university AI assistant?

So we have clear use cases for digital humans in higher education, and industry bodies calling out for more technology support for staff. But do the students want to use them? Well, yes.

Students are perhaps some of the most adaptable demographics when it comes to adopting new technologies. And these conversational AI technologies are working to support them today.

At Georgia State University, an AI assistant answers 99% questions within six to 10 seconds. Along with the quick service, it turns out students of younger generations feel more comfortable speaking about these sorts of admin queries with an AI – especially in cases involving financial aspects of the student experience.

Digital humans work on the same conversational AI platforms as chatbots. In fact, any chatbot can be upscaled into a digital human. Education facilities may choose to keep a digital human channel as well as a chatbot one – this is considered two parts of a digital workforce.

Humans are another part. And it’s these crucial members of the support system who we’d like to give the final word to.

Taking the burden off support staff

With unlimited time and resources, today’s support staff would have the ability to do so much more. How many urgent requests from distressed students aren’t handled while people deal with minor enrolment queries? But without the luxury of infinite time, we need technology to do more to help make better use of the time staff do have.

For one, conversational AI technology can help staff better connect with their students. It seems counterintuitive on first thought to think digital humans can do this. But taking away the simple-to-solve, administrative tasks from real people and letting a digital human handle them is a strategy that’s being used effectively in colleges today, as well as in industries from retail to healthcare.

A lack of professional development opportunities is also holding real support staff back, according to the CHE report. But by allowing virtual assistants to manage small transactional tasks, real support staff can upskill to be more impactful in their work.

What’s more, according to researcher Melissa Leavitt (PhD) constant person-to-person meetings are currently a major strain on support staff.

“Relying exclusively on face-to-face support can strain staff time and resources. It can also hinder relationship-building between students and staff, because insisting on in-person meetings can limit the availability of support for students who need it the most.”

Digital humans, chatbots, email, text, in-person and various other channels can be the antithesis to the one-size-fits-all status quo – improving the situation for staff and students alike.

It’s tempting to say the student support function is part of an intricate and delicate biome. But the truth is support staff, students and others in higher education have proved resilient to so much change, particularly in this decade. We think it’s time things change for the better.

But what do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts.