AI text bot now chatting

A new text-messaging robot has been created to answer questions and reach first-years and incoming transfers where they spend most of their free time — on their phones.  

Billy Chat, an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot, launched in mid-May. It was available to first-year and transfer students a few weeks after students submitted their enrollment confirmation deposit by May 1 and committed to attending Cal Poly Pomona. 

Billy reaches out to students in the form of a text message, designed to inform them of important dates and deadlines and answer questions 24/7. If Billy doesn’t know the answer to a question, the chatbot will have a CPP Billy Chat representative to help answer. 

Zoe Lance, communications specialist for the Office of Student Success, monitors the chatbot daily and helps answer questions that Billy is not capable of answering.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” Lance said. “It took about six to eight months just to get the robot set up, all of the information in his brain, working on the initial campaigns of what we are going to use this for and training.” 

Billy Chat not only answers student questions through a text message, it also sends important dates and deadlines for students to be aware of. (Courtesy of Melissa Yang)

Eighty percent of the time Billy is able to give an answer, Lance said. Although Billy is still learning, the more students ask questions and interact with the chatbot, the more the technology is able to refine itself, Lance stated.

Cecilia Santiago-Gonzalez, director of strategic initiatives for student success, also helps answer questions that Billy doesn’t know how to answer.  

“The challenge is just making sure that we always stay in tune with what students need,” Santiago-Gonzalez said. “As we look to expand into [the] second year just managing to different cohorts, [we’re] thinking about what second-year transfer students are going to need versus our first-year students.” 

Lance, Gomez, some staff students and a Bronco advising counselor are able to monitor questions students send and respond directly to those that get escalated. Student questions and identities are being collected and saved, officials said. 

Aside from sending out general information to all incoming students about deadlines and important dates, the chatbot will also be used for targeted campaigns for groups of students who need to turn in important documents or need to take placement tests and more. 

Billy Chat is supported by the platform AdmitHub, a higher education company specializing in artificial intelligence and mobile messaging.

CPP is part of six California State Universities (CSU) — Channel Islands, East Bay, Humboldt, Northridge, San Marcos and Sonoma — that are working with AdmitHub and received the Irvine Foundation grant in March 2019 to invest in their own versions of the chatbot. 

This first year of Billy Chat was paid for by student success funds while the Irvine Foundation grant will cover the three years after. 

“Most of the other campuses who are using [chatbot] are only using it with freshmen,” Gomez said. 

“I know transfers need help to adjust to the school, they just need different help than freshmen. So I wanted to make sure we paid to have freshmen using it and transfer students.” 

CPP is the second CSU school to launch the chatbot and is currently the only CSU school using the chatbot for both first-year and transfer students.

Compared to other chatbots with an average of 20 percent student engagement, Billy Chat has a successful rate of 80 percent. 

Students are able to opt out and mute Billy. Since May, only 0.2% have opted out from the chatbot. 

Recent data shows that Billy has a total of 1,360 understandings available, meaning the amount of single questions which are still being added each week, and a total of 242 things learned since the launch date. 

Data also shows that there have been over 1,313 hours of staff time saved, meaning that now staff have more time to focus on complex questions students have.

The team is working to expand Billy Chat in hopes of making it accessible to second-year students next academic year and to all students on campus by the 2021 academic year. 

For further questions regarding Billy Chat, students can email askbilly@cpp.edu.

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