How an AI chatbot called Cara is helping student services in Galway

4 Dec 2023

Image: University of Galway

Created by AI start-up Galvia, less than 10pc of questions that students asked Cara had to be directed to a human at the University of Galway.

A few months ago, the University of Galway became the only Irish higher education institution to be nominated by the prestigious Times Higher Education group for an award that recognises the technological or digital innovation of the year.

The nomination is a result of a unique collaboration between the university and artificial intelligence start-up Galvia that saw the creation of AI student support tool Cara, one of the first of its kind on the island.

Cara is an AI-powered student engagement platform that complements the functioning of student support services at the University of Galway by answering questions based on info already fed to it, freeing up time for the support service to attend to more urgent tasks.

Anyone who has been to a third-level institution in Ireland will know how many questions pop up over one’s time at university that are not always addressed in FAQ sections. Cara is a way to answer all those questions without overburdening student support officers.

And the story behind Cara goes back to the middle of the pandemic, when the idea of having a Student Support Centre in a physical space on campus led to the concept that students could also be catered to online using technology available.

“We started to look at our options and an AI chatbot seemed to be a good idea. After speaking to a few companies, we decided to work with Galvia, and together we created something from scratch,” said Josephine Walsh, head of student engagement projects at the University of Galway.

Instead of creating hundreds of conversation flows, an impractical option for a small team, Walsh and her team decided to use an AI-powered chatbot that could be fed all the information student support services had already gathered and present it to students in an engaging way.

Available 24/7 every day of the year, Cara can answer questions on daily student life, from queries about where to park one’s bike or the location of a specific classroom to reaching out for support when feeling lonely or unwell.

“What it has done for us is, it’s just challenged our assumptions around what’s bugging students,” Walsh explained. “Every week, we look at ‘what’s hot’ on Cara, what’s trending, and we look at what’s happening in our physical centre as well as what our student advisors are hearing from students, which then dictates our next steps.”

Founded in 2017 and previously called Chatspace, Galvia is a previous Start-up of the Week that has developed an AI platform to provide insights that help enterprises increase productivity and deliver better business results.

“Our AI platform leverages cutting-edge technologies and industry best practices to deliver scalable AI solutions. We are proud to partner with the University of Galway in reshaping the future of student support services,” said founder and CEO John Clancy after the nomination.

Cara had answered more than 30,000 queries as of October, 91pc of which were resolved successfully without having to direct to a human respondent.

“That was one of our fears in the beginning – if we open up this, who’s going to answer questions if we give an option to talk to a person? Are we going to be inundated? But we haven’t been,” Walsh continued.

The winner of the Times Higher Education award for the technological innovation of the year will be announced on Thursday (7 December) at a ceremony in Liverpool.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic