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Even more engaging e-learning with virtual characters

June 10, 2010

Almost a month later and I’m still seriously under the influence of what I’ve seen at the Second European Articulate Conference. I’ve been going over and over the idea of engaging e-learning design and the various tips that both Clive and Jeanette, as well as all the presenters at the conference, have very generously shared with the room and it suddenly struck me that one thing which has huge potential but which I personally haven’t seen too much of is the use of virtual chat partners (chatbots) in e-learning. I’ve been browsing for some examples and have come across several papers/dissertations investigating the feasibility of the concept, but I personally haven’t seen too many implementations, I must say…

I (and quite a few others I imagine :)) think chatbots could provide the additional engagement factor that is sometimes lacking, they could be trained to be actually useful and they already look good visually (well, some of them do anyway ;)). So I embarked on a quest to find a chatbot for my e-learning. After lots of trolling through resources, signing up to various services and so on, I’ve selected this one from Inf.Net and embedded it into a page I have:

My Inf - virtual chat mate

My Inf - virtual chat mate

I’m aware of chatbots used by companies in various customer support roles and their level of creepiness varies from the ok to the downright shocking, but I think they could be trained (and styled) to be really useful in e-learning.

Apart from the many positives, there are a few negatives, of course:

  • training time and effort (but I’m fortunate to have my Leeds Uni Learning Developers on my side – thank you, everyone :))
  • you have to write proper English otherwise the bot may not get what you mean (unless you train it for TXT-speak and the like). Nevertheless, writing proper English is in my opinion not such a bad thing, so I can live with that.
  • errr… can’t think of another negative (until, of course, the provider decides to charge for the service, shuts down my account and I lose my work 😉 fingers crossed it won’t happen too soon ;))

I’ve also gone and integrated this chatbot into this resource I started for the Second Articulate Conference. This is what the original presentation looked like:

Awful PowerPoint

I’ve been changing it massively for the Articulate Conference and I may finish and submit it to the Articulate Guru Awards (notice the little dude at the top right):

Dragos' potential Articulate Guru 2010 submission

Dragos' potential Articulate Guru 2010 submission

Quick interview session:

Q: Can this be an answer to making e-learning even more exciting and effective?
A: I do think so.

Q: Have people really done it already?
A: I sure would like to hear about it (not just research, proper implementations, too)!

Q: What do you think would be a very cool Next development?
A: Easy: For Google to develop their text mining and Natural Language Processing techniques, put a face on their search engine and spit back a summary of their I’m Feeling Lucky tool in text form – for starters. Voice, multilinguality and event better text mining to follow.

Q: Would you like to see Facebook do that?
A: I think Facebook could get people to train such chatbots more quickly, but as you’ve asked for my personal opinion, although Google still does silly things, I guess I prefer them to Facebook. However, at the end of the day, as long as they don’t get precious over patents (yep, Apple, that was for you), if it will help the world, it doesn’t matter who builds it.

Q: Can you think of a better way of alienating potential employers than by having random silly stabs at really major companies you wouldn’t mind working for?
A: Nope 🙂 However, I still Got my eyes, Got my… 🙂

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