Penn State

AI to ‘reshape the work’ of academic advisors at Penn State World Campus

Dawn Coder, director of academic advising and disability services at Penn State World Campus, is overseeing the implementation of AI in academic advising.
Dawn Coder, director of academic advising and disability services at Penn State World Campus, is overseeing the implementation of AI in academic advising. Penn State News

Penn State World Campus academic advising is about to get a whole lot faster.

Using artificial intelligence, the World Campus advising system will be able to sort student requests into four major categories in a test run of the new technology. This cuts down manual processes for academic advisors, said Dawn Coder, director of academic advising and student disability services for World Campus.

Penn State World Campus had an enrollment of 8,346 students as of fall 2018.

“We found that the most efficient way that we could really increase capacity for our advisors and provide them additional time to work with our students was through technology,” she said.

Penn State World Campus entered into a contract with Google Cloud in June, which then subcontracted AI and machine learning company Quantiphi to develop the customized AI system using Google DialogFlow. Using input from business and technology experts put together by Coder, Quantiphi developed a system in three and a half months. World Campus is already in the midst of training academic advisors in the new system, said Coder.

When an email comes through the World Campus general account, the AI will scan the request for keywords that match one of the four major intent areas which are: reenrollment, change of major, change of campus or students who decide to defer acceptance to a future semester. If a match is detected, the AI shows the intent to the academic advisor who will be working with the request and puts in an automated response to the student.

That takes what would be 15 minutes of work for academic advisors and boils it down to two seconds, said Coder.

Additionally, when a student’s request comes through as a match, the AI system — which has access to a secure student information database — will automatically display student data related to one of the four major intent areas, she said.

That also works when academic advisors receive a phone call from a student — they can type a student’s ID number into the system and their information will display.

Coder hopes to official deploy the system test in late 2019, which is a moved up timeline from the original targeted launch of January 2020.

Both students and academic advising staff will notice a change in workflow with the new system, she said.

The 48 academic advisors will experience time savings due to less manual work, which will allow them additional time to meet with students one on one and respond to other student questions outside the four target areas, she said.

World Campus students will be able to reach advisors more quickly and make appointments sooner at their convenience, she said.

Coder said World Campus academic advising chose to use artificial intelligence because the system could be developed to meet the department’s specific needs. Additionally, machine learning allows any changes that need to be made to the system to go over more smoothly, she said.

“The nice thing about artificial intelligence is that when you train it, it can actually be retrained fairly easily,” she said.

If the test run is successful, she said, World Campus academic advising hopes to continue building out the AI system to incorporate more of the manual processes academic advisors are responsible for. Coder said she can also see the technology expanding to more student-facing units, like the bursar office, financial aid registrar and admissions office.

“From our perspective in academic advising, it’s really going to reshape the work so that we can have more of that one on one relationship with students, more in depth conversations that will build that relationship so that when students to have challenges they feel very comfortable coming to us and asking for our advocacy, asking us for resources, asking for options available to them, and we’re available to provide that to them,” she said.