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November 01, 2016

Will Chatbots Become the New Tutors?

By Michael Grebennikov, co-founder and managing partner of Digiteum

Gone are the times of pre-digital studying. What used to be sci-fi decades ago today is reality: The Internet of Things (IoT) stepped into a modern classroom together with the messengers in smartphones as communication tools, paperless books, teacher-student connection through apps, touchpads and keyboards instead of pens, and screens instead of boards.

This generation of students, from junior school pupils to university postgraduates, is also a brand new audience. They are better connected, more dynamic, and taught easily. To be an educator in this environment means to go digital together with the system. But does it mean that a digital tutor may be a better option in this context?

Bill Gates (News - Alert) has invested more than $240 million through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into the development of so-called “personalized learning.” One of the cores of this ambitious idea is to develop AI software that would not contribute into the existing model of education, but shape a totally new approach – New Education: Faster, Stronger, Better.

Many talk about chatbots in education already. It may seem that since the buzz about chatbots is so loud these days, people just keep on applying this technology to every industry to check if it can work there or not. In a certain sense, it is true. However, when it comes to education, the trends speak for themselves:

Four Education Trends that Match with Chatbots

1. Education embraces new tech organically. Just pop into a modern classroom and you will see:

  • “bring-your-own-device” in action, with iPads and iPhones, Kindles instead of paper books, and rooms with 3D printers for young engineers,
  • new approaches in studying with tech-based progress monitoring, in-cloud data storing, social networking as a tool, and
  • educational computer simulations and gaming as teaching instruments.

Why chatbots? In this context, chatbots are not a know-how, but an evolving and promising technology that may easily fit this futuristic environment with a J.A.R.V.I.S. for everyone.

Chatbots are scalable, educative, and easily modifiable. They can self-learn in the case of AI bots, and embrace and update new features constantly. Today, one chatbot can connect and operate all the devices in class, provide support and management within an online environment, deliver notifications, take up routine tasks like searching and scheduling. And the best thing – it can live everywhere and migrate from apps to messengers and websites.

Does it make a chatbot a digital tutor? Definitively no, but a chatbot shows the skills to become the tutor’s assistant.

2. Smartphones become a part of the educational environment. The times when it was “so inappropriate” to use your phone in class are finally gone. Today the screen of one iPhone (News - Alert) works as a peer-to-peer and teacher-student communication channel, progress recorder, textbook, notepad, search instrument and education apps storage.

Why chatbots? It may be a mere coincidence, but trendy chatbots are prone to settle in smartphones. Many of them inhabit messengers, other bots get their private applications and even some room on websites. Since personal smartphones have already become a part of classroom environments, it wouldn’t make much difference in cost and effort to download or simply open some ClassBot on Telegram of Messenger. Compared to the license cost of a customized software, a chatbot, even a specially developed one, can become a real bargain.

3. Education finally gets personalized. Everyone realizes the value of individual education, but not many know how to materialize this idea. Turning teachers into tutors seems both exciting and too ambitious. Finally, with new technologies at hand, it gets possible, and it already emerges. Possibly, because the giants realize the importance of this change and invest into it.

Student-driven personalized learning is named as one of three basic education trends of this year, with differentiated instruction as a new term for the individualized approach to every student.

Why chatbots? This trend is predicted to make the best of artificial intelligence products, and bots in particular. Actually, personalization is one of the core features chatbots can boast about.

On one hand, this software lives in personal devices, connects with social accounts and fully relies on the information it can collect about its “master.” On the other hand, chatbots, especially AI-based ones, are perfect for raking up, analyzing and memorizing the information they receive during ongoing communication. In a certain extent, personalization feature makes this software customized for every single user.

4. Education is based on connectivity. With the e-learning approach, international cross-cultural programs, accessible free online courses and cloud and Internet-based spaces in classes, education becomes a truly connected environment at both micro and macro levels.

Today’s learners are better connected in class, mainly due to the digitalizing of the environment, and interconnected internationally thanks to online courses such as MOOC and Coursera projects.

Why chatbots? Connection is one of the primary goals that shape chatbots functionality. Basically, this is what chatbots do, 24/7. They connect people with people, people with companies, people with devices, and even devices with devices.

Another curious thing about chatbots, is that they not only provide connectivity, but also facilitate it living in the comfort zone of today’s students. According to the research on Intercultural Learning through Instant Messaging, students found learning foreign languages with the help of communication though messengers easier. This add-on substantially boosted confidence in intercultural communication and created better learning environments via private chats.

So, Should Chatbots Become Tutors?

The matches between the trends in education and the features of chatbot technologies and AI/ML development are astonishing. However, it seems too soon to assign such serious tasks— growing new generations and educating new professionals— to software that is still studying itself.

If we look at the bright examples of chatbots in education, like Dualingo or Prepathon bots, we will notice that these pieces of software are caged by the limits of their scripts and functionality.

Dualingo works through iPhone apps to help users learn French, Spanish and German, and shows exceptional edutainment qualities with its “personality” and a degree of flexibility in answers. However, since the lexical pack and functionality of the bot is limited, it can hardly substitute a real tutor-to-student or peer-to-peer communication that has critical meaning on the way to learning a foreign language.

Another language bot, Chatter, presented by Digiteum at the business breakfast in Helsinki, has different functionality, but the same goal – to teach a foreign language. It focuses on learning new words, mastering spelling and expanding lexis. However, a bot like this won’t make a person speak English, but rather acts as a supplementary on the way.

A totally different set of bots in education is presented by a Mumbai-based company Prepathon. This digital agency gave up on a one-size-fits-it-all chatbot in favor of a set of around 10 smart bots focused on particular functionalities. For example, the goal of a Motivation bot is to keep students alert with reminders and social support. A Revision bot tells students what improvements they should make in their work and an Announcement bot is taught to help students manage time for studying. None of these bots would provide balanced assistance on its own, but together they may help create good study skills.

Probably Not a Tutor

It’s clear now that the level of chatbot technology and the requirements that the trends of education determine today will interplay. And, hopefully, this collaboration will bring quality results in the form of AI and script-based assistant bots that will serve both educators and students. However, there are fire-hard walls that won’t let a bot, even a complex AI-based machine, kick human tutors from their positions today.

People perceive communication with a chatbot as an alternative. This interaction generates different levels of trust and comfort. And chatbots definitely don’t beat people in these categories.

There are certain concerns about chatbots being spammers, having no separated place in users’ feeds, and mixing with human-to-human communication making a mess in the messengers’ histories. Not to mention a certain micro stress or disappointment that people are prone to get when they receive a “New Message” in the form of a notification or advertisement instead of a real-person “Hello!”

Even though chatbots are cost-efficient, able to learn and develop, adapt new features and scale, they are not functionally complete enough to substitute human teachers. However, this fact doesn’t suggest that chatbots won’t live in the system of education as a separate communication channel or tool.

On the contrary, relying on the trends and successful examples of issued teaching chatbots, it’s reasonable to predict that bots may win their solid place in new education systems as assistants, multifunctional instruments and support providers. Moreover, chatbot technology may become an indispensable tool that will facilitate the lives of tutors and students in modern digital classes and education environment in general.

At Digiteum we encourage digital transformation in the education industry. Contact our team to share your ideas and search for solutions together.

Edited by Alicia Young
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