Mastodons can now connect on or off campus

A Purdue Fort Wayne initiative is using technology for good, keeping nearly every student informed and involved on campus. 

Students may recall getting frequent texts from an anonymous- and encouraging- chatbot. The weekly messages check in with how classes are going or what kind of help students might need to succeed during the semester. 

So far, 98% of enrolled students at PFW have opted in to receive this encouragement.

The mystery man behind the chatbot is Mitch Davidson, the associate vice chancellor and chief information officer at PFW. Davidson said he was looking for a way to keep students in touch with the campus community on a more engaging level than a generic email with a feedback survey.

Together with a team, he was able to make that connection happen in October.

Davidson is responsible for the technology on campus. Esports and computer labs are just a few of the places he works behind the scenes to help everything run smoothly. He has worked in higher education for 20 years, and eight of those at PFW.

He met with Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Carl Drummond and Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management and the Student Experience, Krissy Creager. The two were impressed, and Davidson went on to get the service approved by Ronald Elsenbaumer, the chancellor himself.

There are representatives from many departments involved, including student life and leadership, advising, marketing, and more. The variety of input makes for a wide range of contributions for the details of the chatbot messages.

One text from February asked students what area they would like the most support in for the spring semester. Options included academics, finances, social engagement, and wellness. The chatbot sent a list of resources based on what area each student picked in response. 

The chatbot has a 24/7 individualized response to students’ replies- and in multiple languages.

Many of the texts allow a reply of yes or no, or a corresponding number. But some students have taken it a step further. Davidson shared a few of the responses gone rogue: “You’re my new buddy, don. Welcome to the family.” “Hi don, will you marry me?” 

“I like people with a sense of humor,” Davidson said, adding that feedback has been positive– which would account for the high percentage of students that are opted in and actively engaging with the texts.

More than 9,000 students enrolled at PFW have responded to the texts in the past three months alone, and over half of those that opted in reply consistently each time a text is received.

The end goal is to keep the text chain going as an immediate resource for students who are seeking help with school, campus life, or even just want someone to talk to. “We want to do anything we can do to assist you,” Davidson said, adding it is his intent to continue the chatbot after the full pilot year this coming fall. 

It’s safe to say this service isn’t going away any time soon.