The spread of COVID-19 has now affected more than 13 million students at 1,000 colleges, who are navigating the transition to online learning at the same time as they face a seemingly endless (and ever-growing) list of questions and uncertainties. How will the virus impact classes and homework? Will online courses have the same expectations as in-person lectures and seminars? Should I stay close to campus, or return home to be with my family — even if that involves a cross-country flight? How often do I need to wash my hands?
In many cases, the answers are out there. The CDC and others have created tools and resources that address many of these frequently asked questions. But those sites are not always easy to navigate, and students (as well as faculty and staff) often need answers more quickly than an encyclopedic website can provide them. As a result, many institutions are feeling the strain of serving as the primary hub of information for students and staff, which often means receiving and responding to dozens (if not hundreds) of time-sensitive questions that may all have similar answers.
All this is taking place at a time when the state of the world is changing at a feverish pace. Yesterday’s email update may not be up-to-date today, and as governments and institutions take rapid steps to stop the spread of the virus, their communities need access to information that is up-to-date, timely, and at their fingertips. And it’s important to note that this isn’t just about having the right answer — it’s about helping put people at ease at a time of unprecedented confusion and complexity.
Amidst this uncertainty, there’s one small silver lining: the tools to provide that type of trustworthy, real-time information already exist. Developments in AI technology have made it possible to respond to higher ed community members at scale, providing up-to-the-minute responses that are tailored to the specific questions and needs of students, faculty, and staff. Instead of general information that can be difficult to navigate or hard to apply to an institution’s unique context, we can use technology to provide specific guidance that can answer the most urgent questions about how the virus will affect campus life now and in the weeks and months to come.
As part of our ongoing efforts to support the higher education community and government institutions, we’ve developed a new AI chatbot, available for free and specifically designed to provide clear, immediate answers about the pandemic. Drawing on expert information from the CDC and the WHO, the tool can respond in real time to key questions, and is updated regularly with the latest details as the crisis continues to evolve. It’s also been built to reflect the uncertainty of the moment, with scripts designed to prioritize health and wellness above all else.
We’re in the midst of a challenge that has already taken on historic proportions, and will likely continue to grow before it starts getting better. But in our work with students and staff across the country, we’ve also seen firsthand the way that crises can bring out a spirit of community and motivation that transcends even the most disruptive of circumstances. Trust, transparency, and collaboration will be of the utmost importance as we work to ensure that every member of the higher education community — and beyond — has the information they need to make safe and healthy decisions. We welcome your thoughts and feedback on this chatbot, and look forward to collaborating with institutions and stakeholders around the country in the weeks and months ahead.