DetroitEd411 Chat Tool Gives Students College Advice

The new DetroitEd411 offers students of all ages 24-hour insight on college and other postsecondary options with its Facebook Messenger bot named 'Spirit.'

Need college advice? Just ask “Spirit.”

The new Facebook Messenger chat bot, named after the Spirit of Detroit, is part of the DetroitEd411 program launched by Wayne State University in April 2019 and gives students free 24-hour access to resources and information about postsecondary education opportunities.

It uses artificial intelligence and can answer questions from people in any stage of their educational path – from high schoolers who need financial aid information to parents seeking a career change.

“This tool allows folks to engage wherever they are,” says Dawn Medley, associate vice president of enrollment management at Wayne State University. “The wonderful thing about AI is it doesn’t judge you. You don’t have to sit across from a person and say, ‘I was 16 and I made a mistake,’ or ‘I’m 30 and I never got my high school diploma and I don’t want people to know.’ It’s purely anonymous.”

A different kind of guidance counselor

With the shortage of high school counselors in many schools, DetroitEd411 is a key link to the information and resources prospective students need most, she says.

The program is the result of a partnership between Wayne State and the Detroit Regional Chamber and funded by a grant from the Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities, which is based in Washington, D.C.

“While we’re working a lot with high school students, there are almost 700,000 adults in southeast Michigan who have some college but no degree, and there are millions of folks who stopped their education either before they received a high school diploma or right after,” Medley explains.

“We feel like for the economic prosperity of the region, we need to engage all adults in some form of postsecondary credential pursuit.”

How Spirit works

To chat with Spirit, users simply log in to Facebook and search for DetroitEd411. When you start a Messenger conversation with the page, “Spirit” will respond and ask a few questions about you and your current educational status.

Then, you can start asking questions. The chat bot has answers to about 1,500 questions so far, Medley says, but the bot is always “learning.”

“It learns as it goes,” she says. “As people ask their individual questions and stump it, then we’ll have human intervention and machine learning to make it better.”

In response to the question “Which college is best in Michigan?” for example, Spirit offered this: “If you want to compare schools, you can do so by visiting bit.ly/usde-scorecard. Remember, all schools in the country have their own strengths, and it’s always a great idea to focus on those rather than comparing!”

When asked whether college is “worth it,” Spirit replied, “There’s a lot of really important reasons to go to college – it’d be impossible to list them all right here. To start, college graduates make more on average than people without a college degree, which could open a lot of doors for you and your family!”

The advice is geared toward those in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties and uses the same AdmitHub technology used for Wayne State University’s “W” chat bot, which is popular among incoming freshmen.

“We were utilizing it and seeing an awful lot of student engagement,” Medley says of WSU’s tool.

Free and a work in progress

Another important benefit of the DetroitEd411 tool is that Facebook Messenger is free for anyone to use, and it has no limits on messages.

“We can chat with somebody as many times as they want to chat for free,” Medley adds. “The other interesting thing is we learned a lot of our demographic looking at higher education are pretty heavy Facebook users. So why wouldn’t we have it in a frame where folks are already using that technology (and) they’re already comfortable with it?

“You don’t have to learn anything new to get your question answered. It just made a lot of sense.”

Users are encouraged to chat with Spirit anytime and as often as they like, especially as the program gains steam.

“We are encouraging people to ask as many questions as you can and basically try and get an unsatisfactory response so that we can know that and make it a satisfactory response,” Medley says. And while some information can be found elsewhere, she adds that students have fun “chatting” with the bot.

“They enjoy the interaction,” she says. “The anonymity … has proven to be really good for students, and we think it’ll be really good for the community, as well.”

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