By Kirk Daulerio, Co-founder of AdmitHub.

I recently sat down for a virtual chat with Tara Hughes, the Interim Assistant Director of Strategic Communications & Student Success Chatbot at CSU Channel Islands, to learn more about her approach to supporting enrolled students via their chatbot, Ekhobot. CSUCI, like all CSU campuses, have ambitious goals for graduation rates through their system-wide graduation initiative, GI 2025. The overarching goals for CSUCI in employing Ekhobot are increased retention rates, student engagement, and social belonging.

What’s your approach to student engagement when it comes to communicating with Ekhobot?

“My undergraduate degree is in counseling, so I’m always coming at it from that lens, using empathy to understand where students are coming from. COVID necessitated this even more. For our students, I try to help them understand that in a pandemic, no one has it all figured out. We’re all doing the best we can. And we use Ekhobot as the primary means to communicate that. I take cues from our students. I want students to feel they aren’t in this alone, so Ekhobot gathers their feedback, and I collate it and give it back to them to say, here’s what you’re telling us. It really helps to create a strong sense of belonging.”

You’ve come up with some unique campaigns to help students create that sense of belonging. Could you tell us more about those?

“Students are pretty responsive to Ekhobot when they receive messages that are a little more unexpected. There’s more of an organic and positive response. We asked them about their favorite song helping them get through quarantine, then we created a Spotify playlist for them curated by them!

I’ve also found that students are very willing to share their story with Ekhobot, and as I reviewed their conversations, I was seeing the amazing hurdles our students are overcoming. I didn’t want this information to only benefit me, and I really wanted to create a sense of community. There aren’t a lot of ways to do this when we’re all remote. I knew from my own experience at professional events, word clouds are a way that presenters enjoy getting real-time feedback. So Ekhobot asked students what was bringing a smile to their face, and I created a word cloud for them with their responses. Students felt it was true to themselves – they said things like family and friends. 

It’s so easy to think you’re the only person that struggles. If I can disrupt that and prove that they are not alone, and that we have the ability to choose how we respond, and to focus on things we’re grateful for and things that are getting us through this time. I want to help guide students in a positive way.”

How do you use student feedback to inform your strategies for creating unique campaigns for students?

“I’m led by our students. The creativity comes from what they are saying or even not saying, and then I approach campaigns through my counseling lens. Helping students with processes are important, but so are other areas. Students expect a lot from our communications, and it’s not enough to just tell them what to do, it needs to be a lot more comprehensive. So our communication strategy is to use a blend of different types of campaigns – if they hear too much of one type, they get tired of it. 

The students decide what’s interesting or funny – this is how virality happens. So I use the same kind of thinking. If they are responsive to something, that lets me know I should try more of it. Finally, empathy is important – for the student, what does it look like to navigate this path correctly, what should I be focused on, does someone really care about me as a unique person.”

What if students opt-out? 

“It’s easy to take opt outs personally, especially if you put so much of yourself into writing scripts. But sometimes there’s no way to understand or know why, so I don’t get too sidelined by it. I think of these more as learning opportunities – it informs how I can further segment student groups with targeted messaging.”

Can you tell me more about how you share Ekhobot’s engagement data with other departments on campus?

“I’ll provide regular data briefs to our cabinet to share student feedback and engagement data, which then informs decisions on campus. Ekhobot is the only place that accurately shows what the students are saying. There’s nowhere else on campus that is gathering that voice, and I think that is really critical.

For example, we surveyed students to ask them how they were doing with virtual learning – what was confusing, what was overwhelming, what was working – and then shared it with our learning designers as they worked with faculty on remote learning. It was a helpful benefit to them.

The data also shows what times and days students are most active, which resulted in assigning staff spread out over more hours. The largest spike in messaging from students is around 5 or 6 PM, after the normal work day. Sometimes I’ll provide a brief on a specific campaign, or on students’ frequent questions, or where they are seeking information that they couldn’t find on our website, so it helps the campus community overall.

These data briefs aren’t just about decision making, but also about collaboration and bridge building across campus. That wouldn’t be possible without that kind of data from Ekhobot.”

What’s up next for you and Ekhobot?

“I’ve talked with our VP of Student Affairs about sending a campaign around Thanksgiving focusing on basic needs, and messaging students to make them aware of what’s available. We’re also planning some Halloween dad jokes – students love jokes! We’ll send a healthy balance of campaigns, of course.”

Any last advice for partners on your philosophy of student engagement?

“I think the greatest challenge that I’m seeing (and have confirmed with other chatbot partners) is trying to figure out how the bot can help the students with where they’re at right now. So many students are simply fatigued and/or frustrated by the state of the pandemic and how that’s impacting school and life for them. They are all responding to this ongoing challenge so differently (from each other, but even from themselves compared to the spring, for instance), that it feels more difficult to identify what would be most helpful to them right now, especially when we have no other time/situation to compare this to and learn from what was successful and what wasn’t. We’re in uncharted territory and having to learn as we go.

The thing that has never led me astray, however, is just trying to put myself in the students’ shoes. What is it that I want to know, or how would I want to be interacted with? We need to have a level of empathy and be able to relate, to express that human element, to create a stronger community.”