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The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

The Student News Site of San Francisco State University

Golden Gate Xpress

Alli Chat, a new chatbot, seeks to support SFSU students 24/7

Students can send messages to find campus resources with the help of artificial intelligence
Dan Hernandez
Alli Chat made its introduction to students’ cell phones across SFSU on Jan. 31, 2024, offering to provide 24/7 support to students who need help finding campus resources. (Dan Hernandez / Golden Gate Xpress)

Just a text message away, San Francisco State University students can now access support anytime, anywhere with Alli Chat, a newly unveiled chatbot powered by artificial intelligence.

The new chatbot was introduced to students via text message on the afternoon of Jan. 31. The Division of Enrollment Management launched the first introduction to the new chatbot campaign to help students connect with campus resources at any time of the day.

Students can ask questions in a text conversation about important dates throughout the semester, navigate the campus and find resources promptly, according to Alli Chat’s generated messages.

Amanda Segura, the special assistant to the senior associate vice president of enrollment management, serves as the implementation project manager for the rollout of Alli Chat.

“It’s an opportunity for us as a campus community to really support our students in getting the information they need so that they hit the milestones to reach their goal of graduation,” Segura said.

One of the goals that Segura’s division seeks to achieve with the text message-based format is communicating to students about important dates and helping students reach resources more easily.

Segura worked closely with developers at Mainstay, the company SFSU collaborated with to create the chatbot, to ensure that Alli Chat could be confident in responding to students’ inquiries.

According to Segura, the chatbot could understand 1,000 prompts at the time of its campus-wide launch.

“We got various experts from departments across the university to help us adapt those [prompts] and it was an intensive process that we did prior to launching the campaign,” Segura said.

The division worked with as many divisions across SFSU as possible to ensure Alli Chat could respond to students and guide them to the appropriate resources.

The chatbot is still in its early stages of development and continues to grow smarter each day, according to Aaron Joshua Miller, the division’s special projects and strategic initiatives coordinator.

When Alli Chat cannot confidently respond to a message, students have the option to reply with “#help” to reach out for human support on the other end.

Miller, Segura and a team of a dozen people in the division monitor the chatbot’s performance and examine when it cannot provide a confident response. If a sender replies with “#help,” Miller or another monitor will receive an email to begin a dialogue.

Students have only sent in nine help messages since last week, according to Miller.

“That’s because there’s a lot of students so far who are asking questions and the chatbot is answering it pretty well,” Miller said. According to his data, Alli Chat has received 1,700 messages as of Friday.

The team of monitors is currently tracking the data from responses and using it to find out what improvements need to be made and what specific prompts the chatbot should be able to handle.

Both SFSU and Mainstay are continuously meeting to track progress on how students are using and where to make improvements, according to Peter O’Reilly, a partnership director at Mainstay.

Mainstay, a Boston-based company, provides a template for a chatbot and collaborates with institutions to tailor its functions to specific needs and features.

Mainstay has partnered with other campuses in the California State University system for a similar chatbot service, according to O’Reilly. The partnership between Mainstay and multiple CSU schools stems from the Graduation Initiative 2025 that the CSU set in 2015 to raise graduation rates.

In 2019, Mainstay began working to implement chatbots with other CSU campuses and has built an optimized format to help SFSU with student retention and graduation rates, as explained by O’Reilly.

Hilary Riley, vice president of partner success at Mainstay, highlighted that to track the progress and success of a chatbot, Mainstay evaluates five components. Those are student engagement, satisfaction, knowledge, action and time that is being saved.

Riley said that “nudges,” or messages that get sent to students periodically will hopefully drive the engagement as time goes on from Alli Chat’s release.

Development of Alli Chat began in September of last year, according to O’Reilly. The text-message feature is the first implementation of Alli Chat, which will expand to a web-based chat box on the SFSU website in the coming weeks.

“There will be a few different cycles of students asking the bot similar questions, but also exposing it to new ways to ask those questions are going to be more accurate as long as the team is managing regular upkeep,” O’Reilly said. He explained that the bot will soon be capable of managing variations in questions to provide accurate results.

“We’re trying to create this welcoming tone, too,” O’Reilly said. “It is a chatbot, it is reflective of your mascot. So, there is this persona that we can play on to create some more friendly and encouraging messaging for students.”

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About the Contributor
Dan Hernandez, Visuals Editor
Dan Hernandez (he/him) is the Visuals Editor for Golden Gate Xpress, majoring in journalism and minoring in business administration. He is an award-winning multimedia journalist, applying his skills in both news reporting and press photography. He got his start in journalism at 15 years old as a staff writer for The Advocate at Contra Costa College before becoming editor-in-chief as a high school senior. Outside of journalism, he is probably camping on a road trip, playing water polo, riding his bike or dancing at concerts. He also goes by the nickname “Biscuit.”

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