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Schools are Next to Tap AI and Chatbots to Improve Engagement

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By Jay Cooper
May 17, 2024 9:15:00 AM

“Hey, Siri, what’s on the school lunch menu today?”

“Alexa, please pay Isabelle’s student fees from my Paypal account.”

Chat window: Welcome to Mapledale Elementary. How can we help you today?

“Hey, Watson, when is Tyler’s science project due?”

How long do you think it might be before these scenarios arise at your school? My guess is sooner than later. Using this type of technology won’t remain the domain of businesses and retailers cashing in on this technology. Imagine a school web communication platform that incorporates artificial intelligence (AI) tools like intelligent assistants and chatbots to engage parents, students, staff and the entire school community.

Using technology to engage

I was reading Amy Passow's article, How K-12 Schools Have Adopted Artificial Intelligence, and agree that the potential for schools is staggering. It appeared in EdTech magazine. Look around you. AI is transforming the retail business landscape, and education will follow suit. As online purchasing and shopping numbers continue to soar, school administrators should be thinking about harnessing online engagement to improve education outcomes. According to the U.S. Commerce Department report, online retail purchases surpassed $450 billion in 2017, up 16 percent from 2016. Chances are you are among the 8-in-10 people in the U.S. (according to Pew Research) who are using their phones, tablets and desktops to shop for and purchase goods online these days.

Chatbots and intelligent assistants could very well change the course of school communication, just as they’re doing so in retail and business.

Retailers have not given up totally on bricks-and-mortar stores, but online engagement is playing a larger role in their marketing mix. Consider:

  • Netflix recommends that next movie.
  • Spotify assembles a sweet playlist for you, uncovering performers you’ve never heard of.
  • You set out to buy that $20 garden hose on Amazon; 60 bucks later, you’ve got a new nozzle, garden gloves and sunscreen in your online shopping cart.
  • Sweet vacation package deals show up in your inbox minutes after you Google ‘seaside resorts’.

All you need to do is look at your phone to understand the impact AI is having on our lives.

Without GPS and location-based services, Uber would just be a German word. Google Maps, Waze, MapQuest, and other digital map providers use AI to analyze the speed and number of cars to help us all get around. ‘Smart’ traffic lights reduce wait times at a red light when there’s not another car in sight.

AI can be used to disengage as well. Google, for example, claims it catches more than 99 percent of the spam targeted at your inbox. Amazon is dropping packages from the sky via drones, for god’s sake. Certainly, schools can tap this technology to improve how they communicate.

Shaping the future of jobs and education

Estimates vary, but all are staggering. In the next 25 years, anywhere from 25-40 percent of today’s current jobs will be lost to AI. USA Today projects a dire need for retraining workers whose jobs are destined for obsolescence.

Thanks to IBM’s Watson, the smarmy-sounding, know-it-all computer system that answers voice-activated questions, many businesses and retailers have imbued their modus operandi with AI. From placing orders to engaging customers, some of the most successful organizations are using a Q&A interface to help run many aspects of their businesses.

IBM Watson Element for Educators is being used in some schools to help teachers improve interactions during class, manage and improve student performance, and align students with achievement standards. Insights provided by AI enable teachers to gain insights into students’ strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles and tailor instruction accordingly – or even automatically.

Plagiarism detectors used to determine if students are, ahem, “stretching the rules” of legitimate research and citation methods, rely on AI for comparing writing. These checkers rely on algorithms to flag similar documents and segments.

Essay tests are now being graded with AI using robot readers. And while your teachers may be reluctant to turn their students’ tests over to computer software that’s scanning a test, this technology has been in place for years and is becoming more accepted for its accuracy, consistency and time savings.

Seizing the potential of the next generation of school web communication

Sure retail giants are seizing the power of AI, but what about your school?

It may be hard for many of us to imagine, but there was a day when schools and school districts did not even have websites, much fewer notification systems and mobile apps. While the earliest users of the internet and websites were researchers and news and entertainment outlets, schools and school districts were late adopters. Even then, few school administrators could imagine depending on their websites as a communications hub as they do today.

School websites were often relegated to be passive homes for contact information and school calendar information, info that was hardly dynamic and in many cases stagnant.

Sure, Silicon Valley and other tech hotbeds are spawning companies to help retailers get the most out of AI, but what are school communication system providers doing to prepare for shifting preferences of how we all access information, engage and transact?

There’s a chatbot for that

Most of us have been there before. You’re looking for info – could be anything: a phone number, a price, a contact person, product or service availability, even a mailing address (you remember mail, right?). You Google the name of the company and your contact choices quickly narrow to phone or chat.

Recalling that last automated operator merry-go-round ride from hell, this time you opt for the chat message box option. Chat, quickly becoming the preferred method of communicating, is the efficient alternative to talking, right? Leave a chat message, move the conversation forward.

Enter chatbots and live chat.

In an ideal world, businesses and schools alike would have ‘live operators standing by’ to answer questions and serve up information a customer, prospect – or in the case of schools, a parent, student or teacher – may need at that time. But dedicating live bodies to handle online inquiries is indeed a luxury, and not practical for many businesses, much less schools.

Chatbots – both those built on a database of anticipated topics and questions and the more predictive, intuitive versions that have AI baked right in – and intelligent assistants could very well change the course of school communication, just as they’re doing so in retail and business.

Just as apps were the hot thing 8-10 years ago, chatbots and intelligent assistants are all the rage at the retail level, and will be ‘coming to a school near you’ soon,” said Eric Fulkert, CEO of SchoolNow.

SchoolNow recognizes the need for schools to have a web communications platform that is advanced enough adapt with the times. The latest version of SchoolNow, for example, enables schools to add features like notifications systems and mobile apps quickly and affordably. Schools can manage their websites, text/voice notifications, email, web alerts, and mobile app all from one central dashboard.

“Think back when everyone and their sister were clamoring to create an app,” said Fulkert. “An app for this, an app for that, an app for everything – including schools.”

As AI and chatbots evolve, they will become even more ubiquitous than apps ever have been or will be, Fulkert predicts.

“The school web communications platform that prevails will be the one that can quickly incorporate the changes in user behavior and adds the services that promote engagement,” he said. “A platform needs to be able to respond and support future rollouts.”

Alexa, please help me engage my school community

With companies like Amazon, Google, IBM and others scrambling fast and hard to advance this technology for industry, it’s important that educators keep a close eye on how such cognitive computing technology is being used. It won’t be long before schools are following the lead of retailers in deriving great communications value from the mounting data we have at our disposal.

Whether it’s on the learning management side of running a school, or the content and communications side of the equation, AI, as Eric Fulkert predicts, will play a pivotal role in how we engage students, staff and parents. Our challenge is to think how tools like chatbots and intelligent assistants can be applied.

Now, Siri, where are the keys to my driverless car?


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Topics: Communication School Districts Private schools

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About the author

Marketing manager and content strategist for SchoolStatus, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who has helped school districts, universities, and businesses generate support and optimize relationships. Reach him at jay.cooper@schoolstatus.com.