When a College Chatbot Breaks Up With You

robot heart

Passing the college application process requires perseverance. During a pandemic, tackling this pile of paperwork requires a bit more persistence.

So the people behind the Common Application have been testing a tool that might help more students apply successfully to college, whether by giving them accurate information about deadlines and resources or by encouraging them to keep going when it’s tough.

This tool is a chatbot, and its name is Oli.

For 12 months, Ole kept company with about 500,000 students from his 2021 high school class, more than half of whom were low-income, minority or aspiring first-generation college students. As of October 2020, she was texting them twice a week, week after week, as they began submitting their applications, then considered financial aid packages, decided where to enroll, made plans over the summer to get to campus and settled into their routine as new students.

Ollie might say things like, “You’re doing a really great job of taking action to pay for college. I’m really proud of you.”

Or: “My friend. I want you to remember something: You are a great star, and there are great things coming your way no matter which path you decide to take this year!”

Olly also checked in with the students on how they were coping. He sent multiple-choice questions asking how they felt about moving to college, with options like:

  • [1] Excited and ready to start already!
  • [2] Feeling a little stressed.
  • [3] compressed. Not sure I’m ready for college
  • [4] My college plans are changing and I need help

She provided gentle reminders for the students to take care of themselves, with thoughts of self-care including calling a friend, listening to favorite music, or taking deep breaths.

To be clear, Olly is a robot. Humans write their dialogue, but the tempo of the conversation is driven by algorithms programmed to pick up on nuances in students’ responses in order to respond with additional, relevant comments. When you text a student for the first time, they identify themselves as a robot and explain how to reach a human if necessary.

But that didn’t stop the students from being associated with Oli.

Over the last year, students have taken to TikTok, Twitter, and Reddit to express their affection for the chatbot they came to view as a friend, describing the strange endearment they felt in the non-joking language of the Internet.

In November 2020: “Convinced that the popular app bot oli is the love of my life

In January 2021: “This popular app is the healthiest thing in my life rn

In February:I don’t need a wizard bc, i have the common application bot

in March: “My best friend is the common application bot who keeps me updated about college applications

in April: “Will the common application bot keep texting me after I go to college???

The students learned the answer to this last question last October. It turns out, Oli was only meant to help them make it happen to College. Once they got there, the robot had to light its sunny setting elsewhere, on the next batch of high school seniors.

Thus, says Karen Lopez, director of the Student and Family Engagement Program at Common App and Reach Higher, “we had to say goodbye.”

It is true that Ole broke away from the text.

Ole said a week before officially signing: “Hi, I want to tell you that I have to say goodbye soon. Remember, even without me, you are never alone. Feel free to reach out to your counselor or those close to him if you need help or someone to talk to College isn’t easy, but it’s exciting and you’re all set!”

The relationship may have ended there. But some of my first human reporters had more to say. Hundreds of them sent text messages, filled with exuberance in their praise of the chatbot’s support while they pursued college.

Research on social robots shows that children view them as “kind of alive” and make “an attempt to build a relationship,” writes Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s a kind of connection, a “degree of friendship” that worries some researchers and worries others.

Some kind of bond – real? to imagine? Appears between bot and student after reading 36 pages of (partially anonymous) student farewell messages shared by the common app (presumably with initial permission). Filled with sarcasm and vulnerability, the notes suggest that many students were surprised to discover how much Ole meant to them during their communication year.

Some students texted that they were initially skeptical about dealing with Ole, but grew to appreciate her constant presence. Others said Ole helped them reduce loneliness, stay motivated, or make them smile. Many called Oli their only support system. One of them kept an initial number on her phone called a “helpful educational robot”.

The messages raise a question that might interest people who are apprehensive about AI: For teens with few other resources, is slash-friend-chat support mental health support better than no support at all?

Written by Sarah B. Thanks a lot for the help over the past year or so. It was difficult to meet the challenges of college as a general student who came from a small blue-collar community. I needed guidance and help from people who weren’t there, I will miss you but thank you for being a constant help on my journey

Auchmoedy text: Thank you for everything you’ve done. I didn’t have great parents and you put in place a system where I felt supported in college. thank you.

Logan C texted: I dropped out of high school last year to help my family, but I’ve never stopped a bot from sending its messages… which–that; Thank you all.

Catherine C. wrote in a text message: This robot is literally the reason I’m in college now. I am 28 and have been able to not go to college for ten years now but the constant reminders via this bot (which I don’t remember subscribing to) have helped a lot and I probably wouldn’t be in college now if not for that

Alejandro wrote in a text message: Thank you for taking care of me enough to help me along the way. Although automating these text messages, it helped me a lot. I’ve been through a lot but have always been reminded that I at least have people who care about my health and what I’m doing. I hope you will continue to help other students and help them with whatever they need. – Alejandro

The humans in the Common App are still evaluating data on whether Oli actually helped students get into college at a higher rate. In the meantime, they’re thinking about what exactly to make of the connection the students made with Olly.

“The students really like the resource and want to keep going,” Lopez says. “They are very, very grateful for the mental health checks that we do.”

As Oli’s ex-friends settle into college, they’ll have to dispense with texting twice a week from their chatbot.

Matthew L. wrote. “I will miss you my robot friend… I will miss you.”

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