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Becky the chatbot from Leeds Beckett University wins clearing 2017

The term chatbot, was popularised by Mark Zuckerberg when he launched the Facebook messenger platform.

Eliza Conversation

In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum invented the first "chatbot" ever coded, ELIZA, using only 200 lines of code. While the program was a huge success at the time, Eliza's code was too basic to hold more than a short conversation. Fast forward 50 years, we're still in the infancy of chatbots but we're making progress!

One good example of chatbots comes from Amazon and Google, who are exploring chatbots with their Echo and Google Home products – screenless devices that can recognise and carry-out commands. These devices also have the ability to learn, becoming accustomed to your voice the more you use them.

When used right, chatbots can be useful tools to handle customer queries and get your brand message out there. They can also make accessing information more accessible for your audience.

One impressive example came from Leeds Beckett University. Last year, they experimented with chatbot technology during the student recruitment clearing period. "Clearing" is a period of time in mid August where students can contact Universities and Colleges to ask about and apply to courses that are not yet full. Read more about "Clearing" here.

Chatbot technology as a way to connect

Leeds Beckett University Becky Chatbot

The university's chatbot, Becky, was launched on the 16th of August 2017. In the space of just one day, Becky had chatted with 127 people. Of these 127, 65 of these were clearing queries.

What was impressive about the implementation of Becky is that the university recognised how stressful a time clearing is. For students distressed about not having gotten their place, picking up a phone can add to this stress. In addition, today's teenagers and twenty-somethings are often more comfortable using a messenger format. It's how they communicate with their friends - preferring to use WhatsApp, snapchat and text rather than picking up the phone.

So how did Becky the Chatbot work?

Becky worked on both mobile and desktop, using a series of questions to guide students through the clearing process. During Clearing last year, it was available round the clock. The bot worked by using copyright holder that users typed into the chat line to figure out which courses they were interested in. It then requested specific details of their qualifications and exam results, before making an offer.

Other examples of universities using chatbots

Georgia State University use "Pounce" a conversational AI program that helps students successfully navigate the application process. They've even won an award for it! Last year, they won a Technology Association of Georgia Excalibur Award for Pounce. The university's leaders believe it's been instrumental in increasing enrolment numbers.

The Technical University of Berlin in Germany are also experimenting with a chat bot named Alex to help students find and schedule classes.

The Times Higher Education reports that this bot has more than halved the time students spend on researching classes:

"Instead of searching through online timetables, students type normal questions to Alex, such as when classes are, who will be teaching them and what exams they have to take," reads the Times Higher Education article. "The bot replies in natural-sounding sentences and can ask follow-up questions to get to the bottom of what a student really wants to know."

While chatbots can't (currently) replace traditional methods of communication, they are a welcome addition to customer service. It will be interesting to see if Leeds Beckett University dust of Becky and put her back to work later this summer. Backy's recent win of a big award was certainly well deserved.

How about you? Are you a fan of chatbot technology or do you prefer the human touch?

Tagged: chatbot, AI, awards, recruitment, clearing

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