Today’s installment of What’s Next comes from Katie Carroll, Assistant Director of Admissions from the University of Wyoming. Katie shares with us how Wyoming is using Cowboy Joe, the institution’s chatbot, to help students, faculty, and staff navigate many of the challenges resulting from the pandemic. As the need for answering questions and providing information in a timely manner increases as we near the fall term, Wyoming’s repurposing of its chatbot is especially timely. In case you missed it, Cowboy Joe was featured in the April 8, 2020 New York Times article “College is Hard. Iggy, Pounce, Cowboy Joe, and Sunny are Here to Help.”
– Van Davis, WCET
When the news of the novel coronavirus began to spread rapidly across the nation, the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees and administration sprang into action to determine how we could quickly and efficiently communicate updates and plans to students, staff, and faculty. In order to meet these communication needs, we came up with a successful (and honestly, somewhat fun) technological tool. We hope that by hearing our implementation story, you can adapt some of our practices to your own campuses’ needs.
Communicating with our Community
Within weeks of the announcement about the virus, our team of administrators and campus leadership put together an incident command center, an informational website, and a series of email communications to send out to students, staff, and faculty and campus constituents.
Of course, crises like COVID-19 don’t wait for convenient times to strike, and our communication about the pandemic began just three days before students were leaving for a week of spring break. We needed a way to keep providing important information to our community.
In order to ensure that we were reaching students and staff through the simplest, most familiar means possible, we launched a special version of the University of Wyoming’s artificial intelligence chatbot, Cowboy Joe.
Launched in 2018, Cowboy Joe (named after our live Shetland pony mascot) was developed by the higher ed AI startup AdmitHub to help our team communicate with prospective students as they navigated the admissions and enrollment process. Research suggests that chatbots can help colleges and universities address persistent challenges like “summer melt” by communicating with students in real time and helping respond to questions, track key deadlines, and elevate issues to advisors or support staff when needed. In addition to helping us communicate, though, Cowboy Joe has become well known amongst the UW student population, so we knew he would be a great asset to help get necessary updates related to COVID-19 out to students no matter where they were.
Cowboy Joe’s Repertoire
In response to the outbreak of the virus, AdmitHub also updated Cowboy Joe’s knowledge base (the set of questions that the bot is prepared to answer) to draw on the latest WHO and CDC news about COVID-19. Cowboy Joe is available on the University of Wyoming website so students can communicate with the bot via their web browser or by text. Students admitted to the university are given a specific number so they can text Cowboy Joe directly; they can also connect with Cowboy Joe through the web chat window on many of the university web pages. In addition to a repository of coronavirus-specific questions, we were able to add our own set of answers/knowledge to the bot so students would not only receive general CDC-reviewed information, but information specifically relevant to the UW community as well.
This included information like…
Cancellations/Closures of specific campus events.
Contacts for our Student Emergency Fund.
Information on move out due to COVID-19.
Cowboy Joe to the Rescue!
Perhaps most importantly of all, working with Cowboy Joe has allowed our staff to continue to focus on helping students via email, phone, and video conferencing, all while knowing the chatbot was responding in real time to questions on the website.
In the weeks since the pandemic began, we’ve also been able to work with Cowboy Joe to listen to the types of questions that students have had about COVID-19. Many of them were simple:
Is the campus closed?
Is graduation cancelled?
How do I prepare for online classes?
Some were more personal — which we’ve seen time and again, as students are often more comfortable sharing personal (or potentially embarrassing) questions with the chatbot than they are with staff members. In this unprecedented time, those personal questions have become perhaps even more urgent, as we saw just a few weeks ago with a student studying abroad who asked Cowboy Joe: “How am I going to get home?” Cowboy Joe not only pulled from our pre-programmed database with the appropriate contact information for the UW team, but also elevated the message to our team so we could communicate live with the student and help them navigate the complex logistics of travel in the age of coronavirus.
The Team Behind the Bot
What does it take to make a chatbot successful, particularly in times of crisis? For us, it took clear and open conversation between a broad and diverse group of campus stakeholders, including:
Student health professionals,
By aligning on a single goal (keeping students informed) and working together toward that purpose, we were able to enhance Cowboy Joe to be COVID-19 ready in a matter of weeks. Now, the chatbot is being actively used not just by UW students, but also by faculty, staff, and members of the broader community.
In times of crisis, people want accurate and quick information – and with the help of Cowboy Joe, we have been able to provide that information to our community. As things change rapidly during the crisis, we have learned it is imperative to have Cowboy Joe’s knowledge base updated as quickly as possible; since he’s able to respond so rapidly, it’s extra important that he shares the most up-to-date information!
One thing that’s been important for us to remember throughout this process is that there’s still a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know when this unprecedented situation will end, and we’re still in the process of determining how it will affect the UW student experience in the weeks and months to come. But what we do know is that more communication among the UW community can only make things better — and thanks to Cowboy Joe, we’ve been able to keep those communication channels open despite the tumultuous changes in the world around us.
This is a highly dynamic situation and WCET will continue to update this post as needed. As always, we recommend that you directly contact your accreditor for specific guidance. WCET will continue to provide resources and updates related to COVID-19. Please see the WCET COVID-19 webpage which lists a number of curated resources for instruction, assessment, student services, regulatory policy, technology/infrastructure, and institutional emergency response planning.