Tuks has launched a chatbot that gives students 24-hour access to free, preventive mental health resources. Picture Thys Dullaart/African News Agency(ANA)
Tuks has launched a chatbot that gives students 24-hour access to free, preventive mental health resources. Picture Thys Dullaart/African News Agency(ANA)

Tuks launches chatbot for students struggling with mental health

By Staff Reporter Time of article published Aug 17, 2021

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NOKWANDA NCWANE

The University of Pretoria (Tuks) has launched a chatbot that gives students 24-hour access to free, preventive mental health resources to supplement traditional one-on-one counselling services.

University students are particularly vulnerable to mental health struggles as they are often living away from home for the first time, navigating new social groups, and having to study independently.

The Student Counselling Unit offers its 50 000 undergraduate and postgraduate students support resources to optimise studying, make the best career choices, and better manage their wellbeing.

The university said more students than ever before were disclosing mental health illnesses. The services, which include cognitive training, academic help, individual consultations, workshops, and webinars, are used by 16 000 students each year.

Seeing first-hand the positive impact its services have on students, especially as lockdowns were put into place, the unit wanted to make them available to more students, 24 hours a day.

The university’s senior IT project manager in the ICT capability development management, Dr Wimpie Beeken, said their team developed projects across all aspects of university life to aid faculty and students.

“It’s exciting to lead these types of initiatives. We get to explore and use the latest technologies and apply them in a way that has a real impact on the lives of students,” he said.

Introducing the Scooby Chatbot with the help of Google premier partner DotModus, Beeken and his team built a first-of-its-kind chatbot, known as Scooby.

Students can express their needs, concerns, or questions using voice or text commands, and the system responds by suggesting self-help topics and resources.

The students can build personalised tool kits using text, video and audio files that they can use to identify stress, deploy calming techniques and find help and support.

Acting head of department Dr Linda Blokland said the initial development revolved around three main branches: mood, stress and lifestyle.

“Students can access the chatbot through the student portal on their electronic devices, and register using their student credentials. They can also use the chatbot anonymously.

“Either way, their use will be confidential and their identities will always be protected. If they choose to use their student credentials, they can save material to a toolkit and return at any stage to review what they have saved,” she said.

The university has long been at the forefront of using innovative technology to deliver a better student experience.

Initiatives include the UP mobile App, a convenient way for students, staff and alumni to access a comprehensive range of university information, data services, as well as the library assistant robot, known as Libby, built with Google technologies.

The university is also among the top universities in Africa; home to one of Africa’s leading Masters in Business Administration programmes, and internationally acclaimed for producing socially impactful research.

In addition to providing the highest quality of academic teaching and learning to students tackling the opportunity of driving inclusivity from both rural and urban areas, it is also committed to helping them leave university as confident, well-rounded and responsible citizens fully prepared for the wider world.

Pretoria News

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