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How Jacksonville University used empathetic AI to build a virtual community and improve campus life

Through its SMS chatbot, Jacksonville University kept a pulse on student sentiment while allowing students to be purposely involved in building a pandemic-proof community

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With the effects of Covid-19 reaching into every aspect of the college experience, Jacksonville University wanted to ensure that they were able to maintain effective, yet personalized, communication with their students. Dr. Will Miller, Executive Director of Institutional Analytics, Effectiveness, and Strategic Planning shared their goal to ensure they could “meet students where they were to maintain a strong sense of community as best as possible”.

JU decidedly utilized their artificial intelligence chatbot, Nellie the Dolphin, and
evidence-based SMS campaigns to create a virtual community while students
were physically separated. Through these meaningful interactions, Nellie
became a local celebrity in the JU student body associated with connecting
them to resources and faculty, as well as to each other.

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Meet Nellie

In June of 2020, students at JU were introduced to Nellie and immediately she got to work. A behaviorally smart chatbot, Nellie nudges students, asks them questions about their college experience, and connects them to the right resources at the right time. All the while, Nellie is granting administrators access to actionable and real-time insights for both individual students and the broader institution.

Student Opt-In
#SMS Received

98% of students
opted in to receiving text messages and
check-ins from Nellie

58% of students
actively engaged with Nellie and texted her on a consistent basis

Nellie received
22,251 text messages from students in the
Fall semester alone

AI-texting paired with casual conversation helped Nellie become a behaviorally intelligent chatbot that engages students in meaningful interactions and creates an empathetic virtual community. Dr. Miller has been struck by how much students have opened up to Nellie as she “has become a vital member of campus culture and community already”.

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Nellie's 2020 Wrapped

Over the extended winter break, Nellie asked students to text their most played 2020 song to be added to a shared Spotify playlist. Nellie received 285 songs totaling over 6 hours of listening. With artists from Alanis Morissette to Frank Ocean, Nellie’s playlist is a community reflection of JU's students at a very unique point in time.

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Words of Support

With classes resuming and many students experiencing "burnout", Nellie
asked students to share words of encouragement for their peers as motivation at the start of the term. These words of support were incorporated into later Wellness campaigns, where Nellie asked students if they felt connected to their peers and shared these words back with those in need.

These meaningful interactions with Nellie became vital to the campus community as they not only served to connect students to resources but also to each other.

And what do the students think?

"Your upbeat texts make me feel that I'm part of the JU team. Being online makes me feel disconnected from school but your texts have made me feel a little more in touch. So I thank you very much for asking how I'm doing and how my semester is going."

"You're always checking up on me and providing resources for whenever I need assistance"

"What I enjoy about texting Nellie is knowing there's always someone there for me available at all times to help with anything I need."

Institutional Insights

The relationship of trust between students and the chatbot combined with EdSights' Insights Algorithm also revealed trends in how different students were coping with the effects of the pandemic. During unique times, JU was finally able to identify in real-time which student groups were facing particular challenges across the areas EdSights measures; academic fit, social engagement, financial distress, and wellness.

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Nellie's insights revealed that students living in the dorm Botts Hall are overall more at risk for "Homesickness".

Nellie found that students in a particular Greek Group, on average, have a 14% higher "Wellness" risk score than their peers.

While granting face validity to particular aspects of campus life that administrators already suspected, these insights highlighted otherwise unknown areas of struggle for particular populations. From this data, Student Life at JU has created targeted programming specifically for Greek Life houses in an effort to improve Wellness among this population. Additionally, they plan on improving programming among freshman students residing in Botts Hall to collectively address their sense of Homesickness.

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"By students self-advocating through texting Nellie, we were able to assist them in identifying their hurdles to success, better understand their circumstances, and most importantly find solutions".

Will Miller

Executive Director of Institutional Analytics, Effectiveness, and Strategic Planning

As JU remains more physically distant than normal, Nellie continues to build a community that can thrive regardless of circumstances, while providing personalized, empathetic support to students at scale.

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