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eLearning with chatbots: the new interface?

eLearning with chatbots: the new interface?

When it comes to the efficient transfer of knowledge into people’s heads, digital learning is still in its infancy. A student who sits clicking through the linear, restrictive activities in a typical LMS activity in 2019 is spending as much time complying with the demands of the technology as they are learning. Knowledge is dispensed in one direction in measured doses, like those internet-enabled cat feeders. Take this knowledge, says the LMS, pass the test, and be grateful. Just don’t ask me any difficult questions. Getting through an eLearning course is more about figuring out what the system requires of you than acquiring new knowledge in any kind of spontaneous way.

In real life, as opposed to in a current digital learning environment, we learn conversationally, by being curious and asking questions. Especially children, as any parent knows. Their little foreheads will suddenly furrow and out will pop a genuine, hungry-for-knowledge, authentically curious question. Pretty much all day. Every day.

That is where the next generation of eLearning comes in. Every parent (and teacher) has at some point secretly longed for a machine that answers these questions, and takes the questioner on a self-directed journey of discovery, free from the shackles of a formalised learning environment.

Those machines are already here – they’re called chatbots. The explosion of machine learning has opened up a path towards intelligent, responsive, flexible learning interfaces controlled by text or voice.  The AI behind them is evolving rapidly so that they become better at teaching every day.

Here are a few of the things that make chatbots good candidates for the teaching assistants of the future.

  • Chatbots allow the learner to initiate the conversation, which then unfolds as the learning event transpires. This offers multiple points of entry to a learning event, reducing linearity.
  • They are learner-friendly and have intuitive appeal for learners of all ages.
  • Learners know they can come back and ask more questions until they feel they have grasped the learning objective.
  • They assume the role of guide/mentor who takes the learner through the program. They are ‘personalities’ for the learner to latch onto and invest some trust in.
  • They take ‘self-paced’ to the next level. Learners can not just navigate a predetermined course structure at their own pace, but can determine the structure themselves.
  • They don’t chat about inconsequential things; they are always on topic and are data-driven, which can lead to rapid and efficient learning outcomes.
  • Chatbots can encourage and initiate peer-to-peer activity, too, fostering learner collaboration.
  • In environments with dynamic learning needs, AI bots can use machine learning to predict how learning content needs to be improved, and can do this continually, rather than having to update the learning curriculum en bloc from time to time.
  • AI chatbots use deep learning to vary the questions they ask and the answers they give. This reduces tedious repetition and gives the learning experience more of a ‘live’ feel.
  • Bots can integrate with the existing LMS environment and use its learning materials and analytics data, but provide a better interface than traditional LMS systems. Students take less time clicking through complex interfaces and more time learning.
  • Chatbots can be voice-controlled, getting rid of screens and keyboards entirely. Amazon’s Alexa will happily teach you Spanish and other languages if you ask her nicely. This type of interactivity could become a major tendency in eLearning ‘courses’ as well.

Conversational, natural-language learning is likely to become transformational in how learners interact with their subject matter. It is intuitive, flexible, lifelike and less boring than traditional student-LMS interaction. We’re not quite at The Matrix yet – helicopter pilot course, anyone? – but chatbots are a step forward.