Learning with Chatbots

I’ve typically had negative experiences with chatbots, as I’ve often found them time wasting and inefficient. However with rapid technological changes, they appear to be making a positive impact in online education.

A chatbot is a computer program that uses artificial intelligence to integrate multiple data sources to automate tasks, primarily to assist users with activities and work (Meyer Von Wolf et al., 2020). Perhaps the most common application of a chatbot is as a personal assistant, although chatbots are increasingly being used in the education system to meet personal student needs (Cunningham-Nelson et al., 2019).

How can chatbots help students learn in an online environment?

Although in their infancy in online education, chatbots could potentially provide information to students 24/7 on factors such as course/exam dates and assignment extensions (Meyer Von Wolf et al., 2020). Importantly, chatbots can currently mitigate communication errors between teachers and between students and teachers, by identifying common questions regarding student misunderstandings/concerns (Cunningham-Nelson et al., 2019).

On a recent study in a Germany university, students appreciated the 24-hour assistance and fast response time that chatbots offered (Meyer Von Wolf et al., 2020). However, they also stated that FAQ chatbots and the chatbot’s ability to respond individually were considered unimportant. Instead, users valued the integration of chatbots in chat software such as WhatsApp (Meyer Von Wolf et al., 2020).

Here’s a video of chatbots being utilised with gamification for a forensic science course at the University of Hong Kong

In another study, voice chatbots were used for peer to peer teaching in a MOOC (massive open online course) with successful results. Here chatbots asked individual users questions (based on individual responses sent to the chatbot) they had to answer using short voice messages. The answers were then distributed among course users, who then rated the responses out of 10. The bots told the students their grades before presenting all the evaluations received to that user (Pereira et al., 2019). While this could exclude learners with voice impairments, the chatbots ability to operate asynchronously and on mobile platforms caters to a wide range of users.

The chatbot and MOOC students interacting with voice messages in the above study (Pereira et al., 2019).

Instructional designers could also design educational programs with chatbots based on learning theories such as Knowle’s Andragogy theory – as peer to peer learning promotes self-diagnosis and autonomy (Knowles, 2014); and Kolb’s experiential learning theory – where experience is transformed into knowledge (Kolb, 2014), which is a fundamental aspect of the student-chatbot relationship.

Do chatbots offer equitable access in online learning?

Chatbots have been shown in past studies to increase learning in psychoeducation, as sensitive and or intimidated learners often trust the chatbot (Nordber et al., 2020).

On a recent study conducted in Norway, a chatbot was used for online peer to peer support for adults with ADHD. One ADHD participant said the chatbot’s questions and peer support was helpful, as it praised participants during the test (Nordber et al., 2020).

Participants in the study without ADHD also posted positive experiences, which potentially tells us the chatbot could resonate with a range of users, although as the number of participants taking part in this study was low, the research remains inconclusive (Nordber et al., 2020).

Chatbots have also been used to develop students’ second language skills (Fleming, et al., 2018). Furthermore, as they’re currently employed in messenger chat systems such as Facebook messenger – which in 2017 held over 30,000 text-based bots  (Cunningham-Nelson et al., 2019) – their wide use across mobile phones further points to their accessibility potential.

Indeed, chatbots encourage anonymity, asynchronicity, personalisation and phone and chat messenger use, all which elucidates their potential for a range of users in online education (Pereira et al., 2019). Exciting, or as some might say scary, times lie ahead.

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