November 1, 2021
Originally Posted: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2021-11-01-can-evidence-based-chatbots-prevent-educator-burnout
Burnout—it’s a single word but a constant theme in my conversations with educators who, this year more than any other, feel beaten down by ballooning workloads and unceasing pandemic-related stress.
A survey by the Rand Corporation confirms this trend. In 2021, one in four teachers said that they were likely to leave their jobs within a year, up from one in six prior to the pandemic. But teachers aren’t the only ones feeling stressed. Another survey found that three quarters of superintendents considered quitting in the 2020/2021 school year.
How can we lighten the load of our teachers and school leaders?
To combat burnout related to enforcing pandemic measures, the Rand survey suggests that districts “recruit additional staff and deploy multiple communication mechanisms.” For most districts, hiring enough staff to support the thousands of families in their schools is simply not possible with pandemic-exacerbated school staff shortages. In this case, we must look to our “communication mechanisms” for innovation.
In K-12 education, behaviorally intelligent chatbots are emerging as a key tool to improve how school districts support and communicate with families at scale. These new technologies combine an evidence basis with automated messaging, often via texting, and personalized information to respond to questions in real time.
To build their knowledge base, chatbots must first be linked up with requisite data sources, such as a school’s information system. Then, thanks to machine learning, they get smarter over time. As a result, chatbots can dramatically boost a school team’s ability to handle the large volume of communication that must take place each day.
Rather than ask chronically overworked staff to send messages to families and students, schools can deploy a chatbot capable of responding to parent questions immediately and even empathetically. Anything the chatbot can’t answer is escalated to an appropriate staff member.
When Massena Central School District in New York rolled out a chatbot last year, they decided to name it Raider, after their mascot. Introducing it to their community as a “Siri” for school, they started using their chatbot to send positive, affirming messages and important information when the pandemic forced a switch to remote instruction. For example, they used Raider to ask families if they needed support and to let them know that school lunches and breakfasts were free for pickup or delivery.
“When I asked parents what they thought about Raider, they said it felt kind of weird at first to talk to the school on a chatbot, but they really liked how it was available 24/7 to answer their questions,” says Kristin Colarusso-Martin, Community Schools Director. “Pretty soon, we had parents and other family members asking if they could get added to the chatbot. From the district perspective, we recognize the time and cost savings in parent phone calls and emails that would normally be handled by office staff.”
Within weeks of introducing Raider, the Massena Central School District sent out 13,105 texts to parents and students. This saved 328 hours of staff time and tens of thousands in taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on hiring additional staff. Now that schools have returned to on-campus instruction, the chatbot is driving parent and student engagement initiatives, one conversation at a time, allowing staff to dedicate their attention to other support-focused tasks.
Imagine if every student’s family had a personal advisor to guide them—someone who knows the answers to all of the common questions, can speak multiple languages and responds to questions right away, even at night or on weekends. With recent advances in technology, a behaviorally intelligent chatbot makes that support possible for every single family in a district.
Of course, a chatbot won’t know all of the answers. Many situations require the deeper engagement that only a staff member can provide. But in most cases, a chatbot can:
Such common tasks, while absolutely necessary, take precious time away from school staff. Even if a chatbot only saves 60 minutes a week that would otherwise be spent returning texts and leaving voicemails, that’s a full hour that can now be spent on a student in need or an educator’s own self-care.
Most educators will tell you that, even before 2020, there weren’t enough hours in the day to get their work done. Now, three quarters of National Board Certified Teachers report working more hours since the start of the pandemic. This is a straight path to burnout.
To retain educators, we must empower them to focus on what they do best. We need to take a realistic look at the tasks that steal their time and, ultimately, their desire to stay in the profession.
Advancing technology has changed family expectations about where and how quickly communication happens. Equipped with the right tools, school staff can meet these new expectations while simultaneously being relieved of a workload that continually threatens to overwhelm.