York introduces SAVY chatbot

SAVY Virtual Assistant logo. (Courtesy of Pendo Muema)

On September 9, York unveiled its new virtual student assistant: SAVY. 

Designed off IBM’s Watson, SAVY is an artificial intelligence (AI) virtual messaging interface. It is designed to act like a chatbot, providing answers to student queries and finding information when a user requests it.

SAVY is a program-specific and personally tailored system, set up to help students find relevant information with ease. The AI is meant to be a personable, digital alternative to time consuming search and filter of information. It can be a quick alternative to physically accessing information at a student centre, which is impossible for many due to COVID-19 restrictions.

This digital interface is the next step in the university’s goal of creating a “digital ecosystem” according to YFile.

The SAVY AI can be found on York’s new eClass interface (formerly Moodle), and on the current students website. According to Transformation York, its main purpose is to serve as “students’ first point of contact, designed to provide relevant, targeted information without the need for searching.”

The system comes with frequently asked questions for expedient searching, and can be interacted with by typing questions into the chat box. When concluding conversations with SAVY, typing departing phrases like ‘goodbye’ or ‘goodnight’ will end the chat, and the bot will leave a user with a parting tip or fact.

SAVY signing off with a parting health tip. (Photo Credit: Pendo Muema)

“The vision is to create a ‘digital ecosystem’ to complement in-person services that will push customized, timely and targeted information to individual students,” says York’s Deputy Spokesperson Yanni Dagonas

Students have had mixed reactions to SAVY.

“I haven’t used SAVY yet, but I’ve heard about it,” says Ayesha Boison, a fourth-year professional writing student. “The university emailed me about it from time to time. They had a naming contest for it, I entered, but I didn’t win.”

The name ‘SAVY’ plays off of the word ‘savvy’, which is a term used to describe someone with practical knowledge and the ability to make good judgment,” explains the York contest page. “Second, the letters ‘S.A.V.Y.’ incorporate the first letters from ‘York Student Virtual Assistant.’”

SAVY has had nearly 18,000 distinct user conversations to date, totaling more than 40,000 unique messages.

While some students are not aware of the new system, other students appreciate it.

“I like it when it works, and lately it’s been working,” says Silja Mitange, a third-year English & professional writing student. “So far so good.”

Gaps in SAVY’s ability to answer questions are filled in with student input. York encourages students to submit their feedback in order to see how effective the virtual assistant really is.

“SAVY learns from student engagement: it has had nearly 18,000 distinct user conversations to date, totaling more than 40,000 unique messages,” says Dagonas. “Forty per cent of the engagement occurred in the first half of September 2020 alone, indicating a significant uptake of the tool by the community.”

Whether SAVY will fully catch on with students, and transform York’s digital ecosystem in the long run is yet to be seen.

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By Pendo Muema


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