Caring for student wellness with 24/7 AI assistants

Student well-being has taken center stage in recent years, and universities around the globe are embracing ways to support students through their higher education journey. 

Students are increasingly looking at a more holistic view of their higher education journey and looking beyond pure academics when making decisions about higher education, according to recent reports.

What this means is that students are evaluating the wellness and mental health resources and how likely they are to be supported by the universities of their choice

In response, some universities and colleges have taken things a step further to provide accessible, round-the-clock student health support with artificial intelligence (AI) virtual assistants. 

From mental health resources to academic guidance, these AI wellness assistants are revolutionizing how institutions address student needs. 

There are lots of ways AI can help both the student experience and the institution, but in this week’s blog article, we look specifically at how five higher education institutions are implementing AI virtual wellness assistants in their campus communities. 

What are higher education AI wellness assistants?

University AI wellness assistants are AI-powered virtual chabots or assistant that are created with the specific purpose of helping students with queries. They often offer a range of services depending on how they were set up. 

For example, they may offer students information on campus resources, enrolment or registration, or general inquiries. 

Some AI assistants go a step further and offer mental health support or guidance for learning difficulties, or can even offer personalized feedback.

What’s different about an AI assistant and say, a Google or other search solution implemented on a website, is the relevance of results, as they’re usually curated and personalized for students. Where Google would provide thousands of results, the higher ed AI assistant would provide specific support relevant to the student’s query.

In many cases, the AI chatbots were developed by subject-matter experts at the university or college and the responses tailored to the student experience at that particular institution.  

What are the risks?

Sure, AI assistants can work 24/7 and save time for staff as well as enhance the student experience through personalized support, but there are also some risks that have to be addressed, by:

  • Enhancing privacy protection and data security
  • Creating ethical frameworks and guidelines
  • Improving reliability and accuracy
  • Ensuring accessibility
  • Balancing human and technology interaction
  • Using AI in conjunction with human support for mental health and well-being
  • Creating institutional control and monitoring
  • Promoting cultural sensitivity for equitable support
  • Integrating with other university systems 
  • Ensuring long-term sustainability. 

1. Cara - University of Galway

Cara - University of Galway

Cara (meaning "friend" in Irish), the AI-powered virtual assistant created in collaboration with Galvia for current University of Galway students, was developed in the middle of the pandemic to support students online, 24/7/365, as a virtual extension of the Student Enquiry Centre.

It goes beyond a typical chatbot and offers support through automated responses to queries, acts as a student information hub, and offers personalized well-being support for students.

It’s available both from the website and from WhatsApp using open source technology and supports scalable AI, analytics, and more, which also help university staff optimise workflows and use data to make better decisions. 

For example, the system can identify how students may be struggling and can offer resources to help to improve the student experience.

The University’s now looking at ways to scale Cara beyond student support and well-being to other areas such as recruitment and alumni support.

2. Navi - University of Toronto

Watch the intro to Navi on YouTube

Navi (short for ’navigator’ and also means “kind to people” in many languages ) is University of Toronto’s virtual AI assistant, which can answer a vast amount of queries for both current and future students. 

As an anonymous tool, it supports wellbeing and mental health, and can help students address feelings of anxiety, loneliness, stress, and more. 

It can also answer questions about services like registration, financial aid, academic services, convocation, and various health services. 

While it can’t offer medical advice or counselling, Navi directs students to other health and mental health resources available in the community and online with other institutions.

As with most AI, Navi is consistently learning from the queries it receives. It leverages IBM's Watson Virtual Assistant platform and its responses were curated and tailored for the University by subject-matter experts. 

3. Irving - Strayer University

Screenshot of Irving, available only on iCampus, from Strayer University’s Outcome Report

Irving (named after the university's founder, Dr. Irving Strayer) is Strayer University’s AI chabot that offers on-demand support to students 24/7 from their iCampus portal.

It can provide encouragement and motivation, as well as academic support, financial aid, registration. 

It can also notify students of coursework, offer time management support, and guide students to the right tutors. 

The tool uses AI and natural language processing, like Navi, to chat to students in a natural way. 

The development team (engineers, IT, behavioral psychologies) uses the millions of conversations with more than 170,000 unique students Irving services to update the knowledge base and recalibrate the system, so it learns more accurate and personalized responses.  

The team adjust Irving based on positive interactions, false positives, and the level of 'intent matching', and are constantly building on a library of over 2,800 topics.

It also—like many of the other AI tools here—refers students to humans when they need an actual person. 

By freeing up staff from the more commonly and easily answered tasks, the University employees can address more complex issues and requests. 

4. Holly - Durham University

Screenshot from ICS.AI case study: Durham University AI Assistant Case Study | ICS.AI

Holly (a human name given so students would relate to it—and also the name of the admissions team building wing) was created by Durham University to help with student wellbeing, recruitment, and the whole student experience.

For staff, it also helps during peak periods, as it can scale easily and help increase capacity. It’s also a way for them to obtain feedback from AI data to make data-driven decisions and drive improvements.

Holly is multilingual and 'always on', which staff say is key as more than half of their admission enquiries come outside office hours. 

But when it comes to health, Holly can 'recognize' emotions and engage with students, and help them to connect with human specialists if needed.

Holly is custom-built and uses OpenAI’s ChatGPT, integrated into the University’s own SMART Platform, in collaboration with ICS.AI. 

Like several of the other AI virtual assistants, holly has Chat, LiveChat, Voice, and Virtual Appointment options, and it’s multicultural and self-learning.

It claims 98% accuracy thanks to human parity conversational AI, with a small talk model that offers personality and personalization. 

(You can find out more about  Durham's use of Smart Chat by watching their webinar on the topic. 

5. SAVY - York University

SAVY, York University’s Student Virtual Assistant (named after a contest that brought in 1,544 entries), also offers resources for students on topics of health and wellness, student life campus services, career development, and more. 

Watch SAVY on HighEdWeb’s YouTube video

SAVY leverages the IBM Watson platform and was trained by subject matter experts, and was built with a human-centered design approach; it’s also self-learning.

As a bilingual institution, SAVY has to work in both English and French, and the project focused on the diversity of student voices to address questions accurately.

The team looked at how to customize responses in a human way, so that if a student is asking how to drop a course, for example, the tool doesn't simply give instructions, but maybe digs deeper the way an advisor would.

The University states students can ask SAVY questions they may feel uncomfortable asking a human, but it can also direct them to a real person. 

The University allays fears about privacy by stating that SAVY only uses general information about the student to personalize its answers to questions. 

The team is also looking to build on its scope as well as its features, so for example instead of pointing to a page as an answer to say, changing a password, it can just go ahead and change it. 

Has your university or college implemented an AI wellness assistant? Share it with us on social or in the comments below.