WSSU’s new pal Winston helps students 24-7 through texts

Heidi Finley

Winston is available to help 24/7. Photo courtesy of Winston-Salem State University

Students at Winston-Salem State University have a helpful new friend, Winston, who’s welcoming them to campus and answering all their questions.

He’s busy, but Winston can handle the load. He’s always available for whatever’s coming at him via text messages.

And no matter what time of day or night they text, he always remains friendly – he’s a virtual assistant.

WSSU just launched Winston last month. It’s the first college in North Carolina and the first HBCU in the nation to use this kind of artificial intelligence to help students, said Joel Lee, Winston-Salem State’s assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management.

Email is just not a thing for today’s teenagers and young adults. So WSSU set out to find a better way to handle the crush of questions that students have about things like financial aid, billing and housing at the beginning of each semester.

“We want them to be able to communicate with us in the way they communicate with each other,” Lee said. “It’s also better than waiting on hold or in line,” he added.

The service also includes push notifications for student reminders, which can be tailored to a smaller group.

In the two weeks leading up to the start of classes, more than 1,500 first-time students communicated with Winston, a university news release said.

The most common reply is “thank you,” Lee said.

The system is free for students to use, and it’s self-learning. The more questions it gets, the more its database grows.

When Winston can’t answer, the question goes to a human team working behind the scenes — and that team updates its knowledge database to answer the student. Complicated questions get farmed out to the campus personnel best suited to answer.

“If a student’s asking a complex question about their account or class schedule, we want that to be something they sit down with a counselor for,” Lee said. “If it’s one we really need to have a conversation about, the department gets an email, and the staff member answers it and it goes back to the student as a text with [directions for an] email or phone call.”

The technology was developed by Boston-based AdmitHub, which piloted the text-message chatbot at Georgia State University in 2016. The company’s blog boasts of a 71 percent engagement rate among admitted students there, where its service is called Pounce.

 

Heidi Finley is the editor of Carolina College Bound. Send questions or suggestions to hfinley@charlotteobserver.com.