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    When a virtual assistant is more than a virtual assistant: AI-powered, human-led messaging services that help students stay motivated and on track

    The key to student engagement can be as simple as an empathic text message. Ana, Upswing’s virtual assistant service, delivers text-based empathy in spades. But how can a technology tool be leveraged to ensure that students feel heard and keep them motivated to complete their programs?

    The answer lies in the humans behind the tool.

    Ana is not your standard-issue virtual assistant. 

    Emily Myers, who manages Upswing’s support operations and strategy explains, “Although Ana uses decision trees and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to message students at scale, every communication is methodically touched and planned by a human. Our content team works with institutional partners to craft reminders about campus deadlines and resources. These are then reviewed by a member of the support team before being sent out to students.” 

    While academic and non-academic resources are an important component of student engagement, one of their challenges is educating students about their availability. Ana, which can surface resources proactively via automated text messages, is a critical component of an awareness campaign. Students are already on their phones, so reading messages from Ana is a natural part of their routine behavior.

    And when students respond to such campaigns, which they regularly do, Ana transforms from a virtual assistant to a reliable confidant. In 2021, Ana generated 55,000 unique conversations, covering everything from a student needing an academic tutor to another seeking mental health support. 

    Part of Ana’s effectiveness is that students don’t immediately know that a human may respond. When they do start opening up, they are often surprised to discover that a human is on the other end of these conversations, reading their messages, validating their needs, and, if necessary, escalating their inquiry to a school administrator.

    In response to a check-in message from Ana, one student wrote, “Thank you… I’m graduating. Thank you for these awesome reminders. You deserve a raise as part of maintaining high mental health during these difficult times.”

    Addie Peck, the human behind many of Ana’s responses, explains that it’s Ana’s job to “meet students with empathy and provide them with a resource that can help them through their situation.” Since AI and NLP technology can’t deliver the level of empathy that makes Ana special, it’s up to humans to fill in the gaps. 

    Ana not only benefits students, it also helps institutions improve their efficiency and better understand where their students are excelling and where they need additional support. Because students respond to Ana, the service can check in on how students are feeling at any point in the school year. Metrics from Ana can help an institution map trends, direct resources to needed services, and ultimately improve student engagement and retention. 

    Ana is intended to augment and supplement the work that faculty and staff do every day. By using Ana as frontline support for students, institutions can better meet students where they are, and students can reach out for help via an easy-to-use and familiar medium. 

    While the team behind Ana can’t solve all of a student’s problems, they can effectively redirect them and give them problem-solving skills for next time. Addie explains, “A lot of people don’t know that they can ask for help. Ana is there for a student to ask for help.” 

    With higher education continuing to shift rapidly and adapt to the changing times, a virtual assistant like Ana is a critical tool to help ensure student success, even in the wake of uncertainty.  Sometimes the difference between engaging in school or dropping out is simply having an ally. Ana can help institutions provide students with an empathetic ally at scale and surface the resources support students need to find success.

    As Emily says, “Ana is the voice inside a student’s head cheering them on, making them feel empowered, reminding them that they have agency in their lives.”

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