These students were pacified as babies using gaming apps and they have grown up building their own digital worlds with interactive platforms such as Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite and socialising through instant messaging.
This is a generation that live hand-in-hand with technology as co-creators.
Aside from the small task of redesigning the modality of higher education and graduate jobs for this generation – universities must now also radically redefine how they offer course and application guidance.
Nathan Monk, co-founder of Prospectus Plus, a company helping universities to digitise their prospectus, explains the generational change, saying “the shift to digital isn’t a trend. It’s a response to the evolution of today’s youth.”
“As digital natives, they expect information at their fingertips,” he says.
This need for instant, personalised information is being met across society by AI powered chatbot technology. In the UK, it is estimated that over 50% of households own at least one smart speaker, not including the services available on their smartphones.
Research from Deloitte also suggests that over a quarter of people in the UK have used generative AI tools over the past year after an explosion in the number of open source artificial intelligence platforms available for personal or professional productivity.
In 2023, furniture giant IKEA, launched its own AI chatbot named ‘Billie’ with the ability to understand complex customer enquiries and help people navigate the thousands of products available in an efficient way.
But is it too simple to equate the search for new-look household furniture with the search for a new-look life at university?
“If a brand as big as IKEA can get rid of its iconic catalogue, then I think educational institutions can make a similar kind of move,” explains Monk.
“I’m driven by what a prospectus needs to be in 2024 and beyond, and the reality is university websites just aren’t it.
“They don’t do personalisation anywhere near the level they need to.”
In the private sector, major education agents have been developing smart-search technology to help their teams of counsellors navigate the right information among hundreds of institutional partners and thousands of course choices worldwide.
But in the majority of agent services, student counselling still remains a human interaction.
In some quarters, university guidance counselling is considered a sacred profession that can only be done face-to-face in order to build a relationship and rapport. Technology promises increased personalisation but what can be more personal than a human?
The rise of companion chatbots such as Replika, Chai, Kuki AI and Kindroid however, are challenging that notion, with millions of subscribers now using AI-powered conversation to support human emotions around feelings of isolation, grief, friendship and even romance.
So could an AI companion support young people with their complex hopes and dreams relating to university choices?
“I see the future being like a pre-application companion”
“I see the future being like a pre-application companion,” enthuses Monk when asked about what a digital prospectus should be like in this new world.
“These things can live on phones and I can see a world where when you go to an open day, your AI companion pops-up and says, ‘hey [Nathan] I can see that you’re on campus, I know that you’re interested in biology, so I’ve put together a customised agenda for your day, and here’s where you should go first’.
“When the digital dots start to join up and you see how that can translate and adapt throughout the pre-application cycle – that’s where I get really excited.”
Companion chatbots are programmed to keep a diary of important information, constantly learning and adding to the information it has stored in the past.
The idea of a lifelong AI companion doesn’t feel too far away.
Once-upon-a-time students might have absent-mindedly called their teachers ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ – whereas now they might easily call them ‘Alexa’ or ‘Siri’ after the popular voice activated virtual assistants from Amazon and Google.
Meta has created chatbot ‘characters’ that now appear in Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct, each with its own personality traits.
And the education sector is not far behind.
Edtech company Global Study revealed a similar solution during a ‘speed dive’ into the latest AI at The PIE Live North America conference in Boston. The team has devised three AI assistants under the umbrella brand of Student Advisor.
The first, named ‘Olivia’ is a human-like AI assistant designed to determine and assess in-bound student leads for schools and agents. It is designed to qualify leads before passing them to a human advisor.
The next is ‘Astro’, a tool that allows AI to automatically generate an answer for a student based on its memory of similar conversations. A human counsellor can choose to use Astro’s suggestions or not and is designed to quickly learn repetitive answers and save time.
The final character-bot is ‘Pam’ who is there to suggest relevant partner schools in the process. Pam understands which schools are giving swift offers, have closed courses or should be a priority if the variable choices of the student are similar to other institutions.
“We intend to deliver the most intelligent AI brain in study abroad. That’s our goal,” said Gregory Sukornyk, CCO and co-founder of Global Study.
Are you using AI tools in university and college guidance counselling? Are the prospectus and guidance counsellor facing extinction or are they timeless tools for this industry? Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org