On Monday afternoon, Cowboy Joe received an unusual message.
“How do I get home?”
The sender self-identified as a University of Wyoming student who was currently studying abroad. The student wrote to Cowboy Joe, a chatbot character created by the university, seeking information about how to return to the U.S. in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cowboy Joe replied with some relevant details the university had pre-programmed into the tool. And then Katie Carroll, an assistant director of admissions, took over the conversation.
“Cowboy Joe responded back, but it was me [writing], ‘Know that we are so proud of you. Our admissions staff is still here to help,’” Carroll says. “I gave them my office number.”
With campuses closed due to COVID-19, colleges are figuring out new ways to keep in touch and share accurate information with students scattered across the globe. Some institutions are creating or repurposing chatbots to help answer the questions flying thick and fast about emergency plans and remote learning arrangements.
One college chatbot provider, AdmitHub, reports that 50 institutions so far are using responses the company has developed to answer student questions about the coronavirus.
The University of Wyoming is one of them. The college created Cowboy Joe a few years ago to help recruit prospective students and communicate with them via text message during the summer before they enroll in classes.
The bot wasn’t available more broadly, or in a web browser format, until very recently. On March 13, the university’s associate vice provost for enrollment management realized that students heading off for spring break may not immediately see any updates the institution might send out via email about the coronavirus, or may not know to call the phone number set up for answering related questions.
The administrator asked, “‘What can we use Cowboy Joe for?’” Carroll recalls.
So the admissions team created a web version of the chatbot to field questions from current students. So far, they’ve asked whether graduation is canceled, inquired what will happen to orientation for the fall, and requested information about moving their stuff off campus.
“Cowboy Joe in the text- and web-based version is what we were hoping would be the primary point of contact for our students,” Carroll says. “People are going to the website to try to find things. If they can’t find it right away, the chatbot is that immediate quick response without having to dig through layers and layers of the web pages.”
In addition to disseminating accurate information, chatbots may be useful for helping students to express and manage their emotions during the crisis. Becker College in Massachusetts is using its Hank the Hawk chatbot to send “wellness checks” messages to prospective students to “see how they are doing in response to the challenges, changes and stress, and to let them know we are still present and available in admissions, even if virtually,” said Danielle O’Connell, dean of admissions, in an email interview.
Students at the University of Wyoming have shared private concerns with Cowboy Joe since the start of the pandemic, and some have thanked the character for reaching out to them.
“We have seen more of that personal sharing—‘I’m concerned about this, I’m worried about how successful I am going to be in online classes,’” Carroll says. “There’s a humanistic connection through a chatbot that I would never have expected. Students are almost more comfortable sharing those fears with a chatbot.”