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Durham University: The Journey to Holly

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Supporting students is at the forefront of all higher education institutions minds. Durham University have superseded the ordinary expectations of this by implementing an AI Assistant to help students during one of the most daunting times of their university journey, recruitment.

We spoke with Durham and their former Head of Admissions, Dr Crispin Bloomfield in March 2021, regarding their journey and just how many benefits implementing their AI Assistant has had.

Can you sum up Durham University and what led you to your digital transformation?

Durham University have long been leaders in student engagement. Our unique collegiate university environment does rather lend itself to it but the last 12 months and Coronavirus have dramatically changed how and indeed where we work. We've been using technology to support our staff both before COVID but particularly in that recent period, and one of the things we've been looking at has been a critical one and that's around how we approach student recruitment and admissions and in that domain, we've really sought to further improve our business processes, and take things to a next level.

How did your relationship with ICS.AI start and grow?

The emergence of Holly, in partnership with ICS.AI has been built on some quite strong foundations and it goes back to 2015. I co-authored a business case that led to the introduction of Microsoft Dynamics, CRM. It was comprised of two components, one of which was an end to end business process review and the other was a review of the way in which we use technology.

At that time, what came out of that was an interesting piece of work where we looked at the back office functions of the university, and how we could streamline business processes to deliver a more efficient way of working and because the world doesn't stand still, we've subsequently looked at other improvements that we can make to our applicant experience.

Durham University is proud of the grounds it's university is situated within.

What was the reaction of your students to the introduction of AI?

In February 2020, only about a month before we moved into lockdown, we ran some student focus groups in our library and those focus groups were about exploring some of those innovative technologies and in one of the sessions, the students turned around to us and said that they expected us to be introducing the use of AI to further enhance their student experience for us to be able to provide more in tuned support services. So we're now on that journey.

To have a new member of the team join with endless energy and the ability to produce consistently good answers to student inquiries was a real boost.

Holly, Durham's AI Assistant

Why Holly?

It was felt as part of the delivery project that it would be good to give Holly a name that people could relate to both internally and for those people interacting externally. Holly is the name of the building wing in which our university admissions team is based on campus so it's about personalising it and making it feel a bit more special.

Can you give some more details about Holly, the AI Assistant? Has she helped so far?

We began with the introduction of Holly as a digital assistant to help students deal with the enrolment process and the enquiries that they might have around that. The delivery of Holly perhaps couldn't have come at a better time, we put the AI live about two weeks before the Christmas holidays and it gave the team in the admissions function a bit of a boost because I think everyone by the time it got to the end of December last year, was feeling a bit drained.

To have a new member of the team join with endless energy and the ability to produce consistently good answers to student enquiries was a real boost. It just meant that over the Christmas holidays, we had the confidence that we had that capability to respond to queries that were coming in. The stats that we got afterwards have been really outstanding 90% of the student enquiries that came in were answered and it led to the generation of a decent number of contact leads in our CRM system.

Are there any key statistics you can share since Holly has gone live? Or any benefits?

49% of all contact that Holly is making is out of hours. So, we went into this with a recognition that we were in some way limited with our human chat agent, really only being able to offer a nine to five offering, there's still big parts of a week where it's not manned and to have the ability to deal with those queries is quite important. 12% of those conversations lead to us capturing contact details in our Dynamics CRM that we can then follow up with.

We've freed people up to look at other things and add value in other places and one of the things that we've been thinking about is if Holly is handling some of these things in an automated fashion, negating the need for someone to do it, that person is then freed up to focus on adding a greater value at some other stage in the process.

Durham's AI Assistant usage by hour of the day

Were there any standout features that you liked about the ICS.AI approach?

One of the things we also liked about the model that ICS.AI was proposing was around the user experience of engaging with a bot or an AI, so those were around personality and personalization. We like the flexibility that's within Holly around the small talk model and there's options for us to customise that.

We've given some examples of stock responses, but we're also looking at how we can further tailor those and we've also been interested in how we can get some user feedback on the experience of using Holly for the ratings and feedback function and one of the areas around the personalization that we've been exploring is hints and recommendations, and how we deploy hint cards and the contents for the messages that appears there.

Have you seen anything you didn’t expect?

I think we've seen that the expected benefits have been realised, and we're getting more student engagement with the university. Holly has opened up new channels for us and that's working well and we're generating new leads in our CRM platform which is testament to the fact that people really do engage with these API's and provide information that's allowing us to follow up and have a human to human contact as a further result but it's always good when you get some unexpected benefits.

Holly is now being used by our own university staff to access internal answers to questions that we have, because the enhanced search functionality really is transforming the way in which we're able to serve surface information.

What are the next steps for Durham and you’re digital transformation?

Well, the acceleration in digital adoption of Durham is now supported by the use of artificial intelligence and we perceive that will allow us to provide prospective students with a full circle digital engagement experience, and offer enhanced functionality over how we have previously gone about doing this.

Now that we have an AI at work, supporting the university, people are really beginning to understand the power of the tool and we're having some really interesting discussions internally about how we might take forwards the use of this technology. Whether we decide that we will extend Holly, and the range of things that Holly can do for us, or we decide to introduce a parallel bot to support what we're doing. That's something we need to decide.

We've last week commissioned with ICS.AI, the next development of Holly and this will address some of the enhancements that we felt we needed from the first phase of development and having had Holly in use for a few months one of the things that you can see there is that we're keen to explore how we make the transition from talking with Holly as an AI, to handing off to a human person where that's appropriate.

Finally, can you sum up your experience and anything you feel is worth noting on the experience?

We're absolutely delighted with what we've managed to achieve today. The point in which we actually started the development to the point where we went live with the bot was actually quite a short window for something that's quite complex. I think that's telling because it was a good partner that allowed us to deliver it at speed, but also the thing that really engaged people from across the university, both in the IT function, and from the admissions team was that it was something that people were keen to see happen.

The acceleration of digital adoption at home is now supported by AI, our prospective students are getting an impression of the university and our digital maturity from interacting in that way. It's definitely an enhancement over what we used to do. Holly went live over Christmas which is a great achievement there and we're really interested to see where we go next.


Watch the webinar

Find out more about Durham's use of Smart Chat by watching our webinar. Presented by ICS.AI's own CEO, Martin Neale, and Solutions Director Andrew Smith featuring Durham University's former Head of Admissions, Dr Crispin Bloomfield as a guest speaker.

Find out more about our AI assistants by visiting our Higher Education Page. Or simply contact us from our Contact page.

Note: This interview has been extracted and transcribed from a live webinar event.

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