Hey Chatbot, How Can You Help Me Learn?

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Chatting about Chatbots at ATD TechKnowledge

Chatbots are software programs that have conversations with people either based on a set of pre-defined rules or by using algorithms that include a degree of artificial intelligence. A conversation with a chatbot may be in text or voice, or a combination of the two. While chatbots have been around since the 1960s (ELIZA, a virtual psychotherapist, is a good example), they have only recently appeared as a learning technology. According to Nikos Andriotis at TalentLMS,

Over the last few years, the chatbot market has grown dramatically, and it isn’t stopping. In 2016, the chatbot market size was estimated to be worth $703.3 million and is expected to reach over $3100 million by the year 2021. That’s more than a 400% growth in just five years!

Besides the well-known virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, chatbots are found on the internet, within apps, and on messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger. Some specialized chatbots, such Poncho the Weather Cat are designed only to answer specific types of questions.

Chatbots will have an increasing role in many learning and development departments. These instructional roles include:

  • Conversationalist – while foreign-language students rarely have opportunities to use the language they are learning, a fluent chatbot can provide language practice and anywhere there is a connection to the Internet
  • Coach or therapist – chatbots are already performance coaches and as psychotherapists endowed with endless patience and the ability to listen without losing focus. Using natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning, chatbots are improving rapidly to the point of seeming to be a real person rather than a software program.
  • Reference librarian – already the principal virtual assistants can supply information on request. This will only improve as chatbots are connected to more and more of the vast knowledge stores of the Internet. In the corporate environment, they will use chatbots for “performance support,” delivering the right information to the right person as needed.
  • Drill and Practice Monitor – chatbots will task monitors, giving feedback and providing encouragement for repetitive tasks required for practicing a skill
  • Competitor – in learning games and e-learning software with gamification features, learners may play against chatbot competitors, especially when practicing to take on human competitors. Perhaps some chatbots will be programmed to “trash talk” those who want higher levels of motivation.
  • Role Playerschatbots who play roles in simulated scenarios are already available. These e-dramas will only become more realistic and will be used by humans who need to practice sales skills, counseling skills, and other roles that require them to interact with other humans eventually.
  • Moderators of social media – social media chat rooms can become contentious and can degenerate into mud-slinging affairs. Adequately programmed chatbots will be able to detect unacceptable behavior and call out (or block) those perpetuating it. They already are significant contributors to online social discussions.
  • Champions of causes – be prepared for chatbots that will be trained in the skills of persuasion – for good and evil. They will be used by their owners to champion causes or to sell us products with convincing arguments and dialogue. It will also use them to recruit new employees and to keep valued workers.
  • Personalized interface control – already, we can control our laptops and mobile devices by voice commands. The next step will be interactive, where a chatbot might question you to clarify further what you want to do.
  • Assessor – chatbots can be part of online assessment programs, welcoming learners, presenting instructions in preparation for a test, giving textual or voice questions, scoring responses, and giving feedback. Already some chatbots can grade essay questions and a human assessor.

This list is not exhaustive. Will chatbots take over all the roles within a talent development department? This is the biggest concern of instructors and their unions, according to Branislav Srdanovic, writing in eLearning Industry this year. According to Srdanovic, “the answer is no, chatbots won’t take anyone’s job. They will take over the repetitive tasks and make a teacher’s work more meaningful.”


Would you like more information? Just leave a comment or send us a message. We’re happy to chat – with bots or humans!

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On January 12, 2018
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