An introduction to chatbots and learning – pt.1

What… Chatbots can teach now?!

People often ask us how you can employ chatbots to help people learn. Valid, because there aren’t a lot of educational chatbots around. When you see one it’s usually not exactly a ‘chatbot for learning’. They’re used for sales or customer service and most “educational” chatbots are just a customer service chatbot in disguise.

Ooh… very sneaky…

The fact there aren’t any ‘true educational bots’ around and the fact that we get this question a lot means that people don’t believe that chatbots have the power to educate. To educate you have to be smart, right? So it’s believed that chatbots aren’t that smart and are therefore impossible to learn from.

However, they can actually be used as a device that helps you study. In this series of articles I’ll explain how.

Flipping the thought process

Before you start designing you have to ideate. Ideation means expanding from ideas.

But when people think about learning and chatbots they naturally think from limitations. Chatbots can’t handle open questions nor get into the student’s thoughts. You can impossibly answer all the questions a student has and chatbots don’t work with lingo very well. How will they effectively communicate and teach?

I could turn this around on teachers:

  • Teachers can’t remember everything perfectly, so how can they teach?
  • Teachers don’t have built in videos, images or other materials they can instantly share. How can they effectively teach? 
  • Teachers can’t be teaching 24/7 so how effective are they really?

It’s really easy to think from limitations, see?
So I invite you to flip your thought process. Don’t reason what chatbots can or can’t do. Reason instead what you as an educator can or can’t do.

We at Helpr believe learning starts from a conversation. We are educators ourselves. We’ve taught students and we know how to coach students to improve. So when designing an educational chatbot, start from this: What would I say?

If you think like that, the designing process becomes a lot easier. Now we can imagine what a chatbot can and can’t accommodate while coaching a student!

Road blocks

I will concede however that chatbots can’t do everything. That’s why it’s good to work with certain barriers. Even though a student could theoretically ask anything, their journey from point A to point B can actually be fairly linear. We coaches know how to get the student from A to B efficiently so we have to put up certain roadblocks into ‘less than optimal’ conversations.

Guess I can’t go this way. Good thing there’s a sign pointing me in the right direction.

Tips & Tricks

I’ll try to end each of these articles with some practical designing tips and tricks pertaining to the subject at hand. In this article we’ve seen that designing an educational chatbot is entirely possible if we flip our thought process. How we do this determines the effectiveness of the chatbot. Without further ado, here’s the first set of tips!

  • Design from possibilities instead of limitations: What do I want? How can I get there? What do I need? – A chatbot can do more than you think. Start with what you want and iterate until you are successful.
  • Make use of a chatbot’s possibilities: It can teach multiple people at once (up to thousands!), it’s always available, it can pull relevant materials from anywhere instantly, it can guide a conversation without the possibility of derailing.
  • Experiment: See what you can think of that a bot could take over for you and test that with a couple of students. The more a chatbot does, the better it can be used!

But how can we know if chatbots really affect learning? How do we know that a chatbot says the right things? How can we actually have students learn from a bot?

Well… I’ll be answering those questions in part 2. So stay tuned for that!