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Equality

The Unexpected Ways Chatbots Will Drive Equity in Education

chatbot user

Salesforce.org Education Cloud GM Susan Morrow shares her take on an unlikely technology being used to solve inequities in higher ed

Chatbots are on the rise, and while most people associate them with digital-first customer service, they have another important benefit: they can vastly improve accessibility. 

With access at their core, chatbots are showing great promise in higher education, where people from diverse backgrounds must navigate complex systems. Salesforce.org’s new Financial Aid Chatbot from Impact Labs, for example, is specifically designed to reduce inequities by helping students navigate the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) application on their own time and without judgement.

The Financial Aid Chat bot was co-created by leaders from 15 organizations, including Morehouse College, Ivy Tech Community College, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Together with pro-bono volunteers from Salesforce, they collaborated for six months to outline design principles to promote equity in education, and then applied these principles in design and development.

To learn more about how chatbots can support students, we sat down with Susan Morrow, GM of Education Cloud at Salesforce.org.

Q. Why did Salesforce.org decide to focus this Impact Labs project on financial aid?

Impact Labs is a fantastic project that looks at how we can use technology and work with community members to solve social problems. 

Part of the Impact Labs team process is asking our community “What do you want to work on?” One topic that kept popping up was equity in education. At the same time, our Education Cloud team was looking at equity in education and how we were using Salesforce technology to help open up access and affordability. So, when we came together, in true Impact Labs style, we started with “How do we understand the universe of the problem?” 

When taking a look at the landscape of challenges and who we wanted this technology to support, we wanted to look at HBCUs as well as the experiences of African American and Latinx students. 

For the most part, social inequities become replicated in the education system. You see this in terms of both admissions and retention. We kept coming back to issues around financial barriers and how they are unique for first-generation students and students whose parents may not be citizens. This led us to financial aid and how technology can help break down these barriers. 

Q. What problem is the Financial Aid Chatbot trying to solve? 

One of the first things students think about when leaving high school or, as working adults, getting a degree, is “How do I pay for it on top of all the other things I have to pay for?” 
This can include helping their families pay rent or taking care of their own children. The questions can be fairly broad and this is why a chatbot becomes useful. It can help address a number of different questions such as: What are the different ways to pay for school? What’s the difference between a grant, scholarship, and loan? What’s the difference between a subsidized and unsubsidized loan?

 GIF showing the tool’s menu.

Q. Why is a chatbot a good solution to help students secure financial aid?

Chatbots have a particularly powerful place in education; they meet students where they are, and they work 24/7. They have no judgment about the questions you ask. And they are meant to lead you more efficiently on paths to get answers. 

They also can also be anonymous. For particular populations, this is really important. For example, when we look at immigration status in the United States, the implications of asking certain questions might put your entire family at risk. It’s life or death for some people. Chatbots can provide a safe place to be able to ask these questions without fear.

Chatbots also help institutions simplify language and ideas into smaller bites. This is often referred to as “conversational design” and results in concepts that are easier to navigate than a printed course catalog or even a full website. This adaptation of content is better for students on their phones, as well as those using assistive technology, such as screen readers.

GIF showing the tool’s ability to search for key dates.

Q. Why did Impact Labs bring together community members to tackle this issue?

A beautiful aspect of working at Salesforce.org is we recognize that we are part of a fabric. We are part of a community. We’re here to use our technology to help, but we do not have all the answers. 

Our customers are the ones leading the charge in solving inequities in education. We respect and honor what our customers do and also understand that part of our job is to collect all of those insights and make sure we’re surfacing them. This is why Impact Labs is such a great initiative in bringing our customers together and putting our community at the center.

Q. How do you see chatbots playing a role in higher education in the future? 

Chatbots have an important role to play in increasing accessibility and providing insights. From improving accessibility for non-English speakers to providing anonymity when you feel vulnerable, chatbots help reduce barriers. 

The best chatbots typically are built for a very narrow use case. And when connected with other chatbots and tied to the Salesforce platform, they can provide important insights about students’ needs. For example, if you look at what people are asking a chatbot and notice “Oh, we don’t have enough information for veterans around how they can use their benefits” you are now able to respond in real time to address those types of inequities. It’s very powerful. 

For more about how the Financial Aid Chatbot from Salesforce.org Impact Labs is making it easier for students to navigate the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), click here.

Bio:

Susan Morrow

GM of Education Cloud at Salesforce.org

Susan Morrow has focused her career on the intersection of technology and social impact. She previously served as Vice Chancellor of Innovation for a nonprofit university system, and Chief Operating Officer for a social-impact venture providing affordable, accessible higher education to working adults.

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