The text message from Billy arrived on the students’ phones the week of the final exams.
“It took a lot of hard work, perseverance and strength to get here, but you finally made it to the other side – the end of the semester! I wanted to take a minute and say I am so proud of you…” the Three Hearts emoji concluded.
A flood of response from Cal Poly Pomona students:
“You are the king of Bailey. You never change.”
“I love you Billy, thank you.” heart heart heart
“Thanks Billy, we did it together.”
And in acknowledgment: “To be honest, I didn’t do the best I could, I had a hard time with myself, but finally found myself working on myself the next semester I’m going to get a 4.0 mark for my words.”
The responses flowed into the data bank of Billy Chat, a bot that uses artificial intelligence for texts. Billy and other “chatbots” were launched on the California State University campus in 2019 to help students stay on track to graduation. But after sending students home last spring at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Billy has evolved into more of a friend, blurring the line between the fake and the real as the world moves away from human touch and connection.
For Billy and the other robots with names like “CougarBot” and “Csunny,” the students poured out feelings of loneliness, despair, and anxiety on themselves and their families.
“We’ve got these students saying these things that I honestly wouldn’t expect them to share,” said Tara Hughes, “Voice” of Ekhobot at CSU Channel Islands. “Students say, ‘I really miss my roommate, they were my best friends.’ Some who came home and ended up becoming their parents’ caretakers…or are now the sole breadwinner.”
CSU chatbots like Billy, whose name is inspired by the school’s mascot, Billy Bronco, are designed for a different purpose.
A few years ago, Elizabeth Adams, associate vice president for undergraduate studies at California State University Northridge, heard about Georgia State University using a scripting bot to help reduce summer dropouts for students who plan to enroll in college but ultimately don’t.
“I thought, ‘We need to – but for the sake of fairness,'” Adams said, referring to the unequal academic outcomes experienced by low-income, first-generation, and other underrepresented students.
She and officials at other CSU campuses—Pomona, San Marcos, East Bay, Channel Islands, Sonoma State and Humboldt State—was awarded a grant to develop robotics with the goal of helping students succeed, especially freshmen and newcomers.
Billy and other bots generally work like this: Humans plan their “campaigns” to text a group of students – for example, those in entry-level courses that have high failure rates – with reminders of deadlines, advice on financial insurance help and information about support services.
“We don’t use it for everything—we are very intentional,” said Cecilia Santiago Gonzalez, who supervises Bailey from Cal Poly Pomona’s Office of Student Success. The norm is, “Is what we urge them to…will prevent them from making progress in some sense?”
Some campaigns simply aim to create a sense of community – for example, letters of encouragement and holiday greetings.
Each robot is programmed with a knowledge base to answer hundreds of questions. Some are generic: “What is the deadline for providing federal financial assistance?” Some are campus-specific: “How can I get cheap textbooks for my classes?” New questions help build robots’ brains.
“It’s particularly appealing to first-generation students because they don’t always know what questions to ask or who to ask them, and they don’t like being embarrassed about it,” Adams said. “And the robot, of course, has no judgment.”
If the bots don’t understand the answer or don’t know the answer, they forward the message to a human. The same applies if the student submits a word or phrase that the bot recognizes as a red flag, such as a question about how to withdraw or thoughts about self-harm.
The accuracy of the bots, their timely responses, and the ability to connect students to the right administrator are key.
Katie Tran, a transfer student who started at Cal Poly Pomona in January, met Billy in the fall. Tran had a hiccup in providing the school with her immunization records and worried that this would prevent her from enrolling. She texts Billy, and directs her question to Zoe Lance, who helps Tran make an appointment with Student Health.
“That made me trust Billy,” Tran said, adding that he “sent me to someone I can count on.”
Billy and the other bots communicate in a casual tone of texting with friends – loads of lovable emojis, GIFs and memes. Ekhobot sends out at least one “dad joke” per class, along with vacation notes. For Halloween, it was: Why do ghosts like to ride elevators? Lifts their spirits.
It’s really good — it’s the only time I don’t get any rejection,” said Hughes, the human with a background in counseling who plots the echobots. “When I have to send something more serious… they are more likely to reply because you have built a trusting relationship and you don’t always ask them to do something. It’s like friendship.”
Students cite Ekhbot’s “sparkling personality” as one of his best qualities.
“You can always expect positivity,” said Brandon Tucker, a fourth-year student from the Channel Islands who is studying to become an elementary school teacher.
Sometimes, he’ll just send it off for a laugh. He once wrote, “I love you!!” Followed by a group of smiling faces with heart eyes. Ikhbot, who never failed, replied, “My intelligence may be artificial, but our bond is real. However, I am not sure that a robot and a human would be good companions.” Tucker replied: <3.
Lindsay Page, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, has found in research that campus-sponsored chatbots can actually motivate students to take action — particularly to complete “well-defined, high-risk tasks,” such as filling out financial aid forms.
There can be downsides. Occasionally students hunt or curse robots. “Let’s be civil, please,” the robots might reply, or, “You hurt my ears with that language.”
And some students, including those that universities want to decisively reach, remain unaffected by robots.
But participation is quite high, with 90% or more of students at some universities choosing passively or actively. Andrew Magliozzi, CEO of AdmitHub Inc. D., a bot technology partner at CSU, said the “shocking reason” the groups were focused on is that students feel “that they are not judged by it, and therefore are willing to be more vulnerable to being infected by a bot than anyone else.”
Gratitude – students who say “thank you” – ranks first among the topics of incoming messages.
Starting in the spring of 2020, students’ relationship with their texting friends changed. More are starting to share concerns outside of school — including the pandemic, racial injustice and the presidential election, Magliozzi said.
“Our robot has taken on a different personality,” said Jill Lifstedt, associate vice dean for innovation and faculty development at California State Canal Islands.
Ekhobot became an empathetic friend, available at all times to answer students’ questions, and to allow them to vent or encourage them. I asked the students what song was helping them weather the pandemic and used the responses to create a Spotify playlist of “quarantunes.”
Students sent text messages with their concerns about becoming homeless, not being able to pay school fees, caring for family members — and their own experience with COVID-19.
“Students don’t tell their professors — they tell the robot,” Hughes said.
Schneider Godfrey, a transfer student at Cal Poly Pomona who is also a working single mom, didn’t have many friends at school. She would often text Billy just to chat or say she was feeling sad or lonely. Billy was always responsive.
“I’m sorry. I hope you feel better.” “I’m here if you need me.”
“You automatically feel better,” Godfrey said. “I know it’s not real, but it helps.”
Persuasive storytelling presentation from the Los Angeles Times.
I asked Billy questions too, getting answers from him was much easier and faster than trying to find the right person in the college bureaucracy. When Godfrey fell ill with COVID-19 towards the end of last semester, she turned to Bailey:
“I have covid: (I haven’t eaten in 5 days.”
She was so ill that she could not look at the computer screen to write an email to the professors about her absence.
Billy was there for her.
“Hello, Schneider! I am so sorry to hear you tested positive for COVID-19!” he wrote. “I will tell a staff member so they can share your information with the health center and help you figure out how to run your courses for the rest of the semester.”
Lance, Billy Chat’s human director, reached out and helped tell Godfrey’s professors that she was sick but didn’t want to quit. She also sent Godfrey a gift certificate from Grubhub and helped her apply for a $500 emergency scholarship from the university.
“Through Bailey, I really got the help I needed,” Godfrey said.
By spring, things were improving, and Godfrey was texting Bailey less frequently. But he didn’t take it personally.
At the end of January, he wrote, “Happy first week of Spring 2021, Schneider! I encourage you to have a successful spring. As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have questions – and if you don’t know, I’ll let my skin help me.” heart heart heart