Using Chat to Prioritise Students’ Mental Health

How the University of Pretoria has leveraged Google Cloud and artificial communication technology to prioritise students' well-being.

2 years ago   •   3 min read

By Angelique Tzanakakis

It’s no secret that university students face immense pressure both academically and socially. Managing a more challenging workload, making new friends and dealing with the personal admin that comes with more independent living can be difficult. For some students, it’s their first time living away from home and, in many instances, they find themselves having to deal with new stresses without parental support. This has fueled a mental health crisis at our universities.

While institutions do have dedicated counselling units, these services aren’t often available to every student 24 hours a day. It’s for this reason that the Student Counselling Unit at the University of Pretoria (UP) with the help of DotModus designed and built a first-of-its-kind counselling chatbot for university students as part of their Student Counselling Unit-Bot (SCU-B) (pronounced “Scooby”) initiative. Importantly, SCU-B is more than just a chatbot; it’s a toolset with a focus on accessibility that can be customised to the personal needs of each and every student.

SCU-B provides free, preventative mental healthcare resources for students to supplement traditional counselling services. Each student can interactively explore self-help topics and build out their own personal self-help toolkits (made up of collected multimedia resources, tips and guides). In the event of a crisis, SCU-B also facilitates getting face-to-face help.

The initial goal of the initiative, according to Dr Wimpie Beeken, Senior IT Project Manager: ICT Capability Development Management at UP, was to provide students with an appropriate platform to access self-help resources using the technology they’re already familiar with and when they need it most.

The messages SCU-B shows were created by both the  Student Counselling Unit and the team at DotModus to refine and better present the tone of the chatbot.  With equitable access in mind, there was a collaborative effort with the Disability Unit at UP to ensure that images have the correct alternative text and that students using screen readers were able to use SCU-B.

Furthermore, SCU-B makes use of the in-browser text-to-speech and speech-to-text function. Using this in-browser function allowed the team at DotModus to keep the overhead data use as low as possible while remaining accessible.

The chatbot uses several Google services including Dialogflow, Google Kubernetes Engine, Cloud SQL, Google App Engine, and Cloud Scheduler. Dr Beeken stressed that one of the benefits of using the Google Cloud platform is that it provides many opportunities for the growth of the initiative.

“The university has been happily using Google Workspace for the last four years, so powering the bot with Google Cloud Platform was a given. The technology is incomparable and integrating SCU-B with the various departments has been seamless.” - Dr Wimpie Beeken, Senior IT Project Manager: ICT Capability Development Management at UP.

Dialogflow is a natural language understanding platform used to build conversational applications and experiences on multiple platforms. With Dialogflow, SCU-B interacts with the student naturally and accurately. It is capable of recognising intent and context accurately and efficiently giving the student relevant and useful resources.

The biggest advantage of Dialogflow is that it provides the required processing for machine learning and updating it is quick and easy. It can take new example sentences, consider them and learn them without any downtime or visibility from the user. Thus allowing the team at UP to make content changes or add content without disruption.

As with all chatbots, it uses artificial intelligence to develop and grow. This means that the more students use it, the smarter SCU-B will be. According to Dr Beeken, while the initiative does expand upon the traditional counselling process, it also frees up time for the unit to focus on developing better self-help resources such as podcasts, videos and online workshops.

“DotModus gave us carte blanche. Their never-say-no attitude allowed us to build every requirement of our idea and their openness of engagement meant that every team member and stakeholder was on board and involved from day one.” - Dr Beeken.

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