July 29, 2020—Beginning Aug. 1, all California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) students will have access to a popular campus chatbot named Ekhobot, after the University’s mascot, Ekho the Dolphin.

Ekhobot is a text platform that was designed for new freshmen and transfer students, but the chatbot is now coming to every student’s mobile digital device thanks to a $36,625 grant from CSU Northridge and the Irvine Foundation in support of the “CSU AI Consortium.”

The CSU AI Consortium consists of five CSU campuses that are developing a campus-specific chatbot, with each campus receiving a different amount based on enrollment. The $36,625 is the second installment of a total two-year $89,637 grant for CSUCI.

Ekhobot was originally intended to answer new students’ questions and provide encouragement and reminders of important deadlines, all for the purpose of helping students stay on track to do well, stay in school and graduate on time.

But after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became clear that Ekhobot’s role had just become more complex, and had never been more important.

The texts coming into Ekhobot made it clear to Associate Vice Provost for Innovation and Faculty Development Jill Leafstedt, Ph.D, and Associate Vice Provost for Student Success & Community Engagement Amanda Quintero, Ph.D, that the chatbot they had championed and developed for CSUCI was a critical link to students during a confusing and turbulent situation.

“We were so lucky we had the bot during the COVID epidemic because that has been the primary way we have been communicating with students,” Quintero said. “Ekhobot was reaching out to students to see how virtual instruction was going. They were able to really tell us what was most enjoyable and what was most challenging. The thing they needed most was to stay connected.”

Before the pandemic, CSUCI’s chatbot, named “Ekhobot,” answered questions from students like “When is the deadline for registration?” “Where is the dining hall?” and “Is the library open this weekend?”

Then, in March, the pandemic took hold, the campus went virtual and the messages changed:

"I'm just trying to manage my schoolwork with my army requirements. I was called up for duty,” “If you could inform my teachers I will be dropping out, and that I enjoyed their lectures but I'm not currently well” and “"I'm a full-time student and work 50 hours a week because both my parents were laid off their jobs.”

In an effort to learn what students need for their different circumstances, Leafstedt said a number of targeted campaigns were underway for students with different academic needs, depending on where they are with their education.

“Ekhobot is a way to reach students, but also a way to listen to students,” Leafstedt said. “We’re going to be doing some targeted academic interventions using the bot. For example, we’ve got targeted messages for students who are close to the 120 units needed to graduate, or for students who have struggled to pass a specific class. We’re doing targeted micro-interventions just before midterms with messages like ‘Good luck on the midterm,’ and then it can send them a one-minute tutorial. That’s an area we are excited to explore.”

Interim Assistant Director for Strategic Communications and Student Success Chatbot Tara Hughes is on the front lines of the Ekhobot communication. She and her team field questions and answers from students and use that information to create a so-called “knowledge base” of commonly-asked questions and answers.

Ekhobot has always been a safe place for students to ask questions, get help or just get a sense that they were being heard. After the pandemic hit, Ekhobot was able to supply answers about remote learning and where to find help, but also to provide a comforting presence at a confusing time.

“The students have not been shy about sharing their struggles both inside and outside of the classroom,” Hughes said. “They’re not pulling any punches; they’re being super real with what they’re dealing with. For us, the responsibility is to take that information and make sure the powers that be are aware of the climate.”

And as always, Hughes and the student workers make sure Ekhobot always keeps its sense of humor.

“I think it’s critical Ekhobot should be like a friend,” Hughes said. “There is a sense of isolation and loneliness right now for many of us, and you’re happy to have this presence. The bot is a non-judgmental resource with a nerdy sense of humor, but the students seem to appreciate it.”

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