Bots and the Future of Education

Bots and the Future of Education

At F8 2016, Facebook revealed their roadmap for the next ten years. One of the key elements of this roadmap includes the use and development of bots to serve as a smarted interface for the user.

A bot is basically a set of scripts, or a program that is taught to act in specific ways. It automates functions you would typically perform on your own.

The future with bots

These can/will be viewed as alternatives to apps to help users interact and receive content. If the bot is written correctly, there is no need to have human interaction to complete these requests.

Think about this future:

  • You have questions about your loan or payment for your mortgage. Through your messenger window you can talk to your phone, and make a payment. The bot for your mortgage company will respond and handle your payment for you.
  • You want to order flowers for your significant other. you speak this command to your computer. The bot in charge of handling local flower deliveries swoops in and starts to process this order. It pulls up photos of arrangements to make sure it’s the collection you wanted.
  • Your significant other asks you to order and pick up takeout from the local restaurant on your way home. A bot is listening and acts as a concierge to contact the restaurant, order your favorite meals, calculate your distance to the distance and make sure it’s ready when you arrive for pickup.

As users, some may think that bots are silly, and no one would every want to use that service. Now that Facebook (and others) are going into this space full speed ahead, they will be a bit more ubiquitous in your everyday interactions.

Please also remember that “liking” or giving something a “thumbs up” also may have seemed silly. We can also add in considerations of emoticons and selfies. We underestimate the power of the network effect. We also don’t know what literacies individuals will use and develop with these new tools.

A world with bots

My thinking about bots is that there is too much information available online, and in our daily communications. Bots, and variants of artificial intelligence can be found in different aspects of our lives.

In my own personal life, I work with bots regularly using my mobile device as the hub. I use Google Calendar for my scheduling. My phone knows where I am currently located and will send me a notice when I need to be at a meeting at a different location. It factors in travel, traffic, and the time. It knows the local weather and will send me a note as I’m getting dressed to alert me to drastic weather changes. Google also knows my searching habits and every morning automatically gives me news of the day that I might be interested in reviewing. It’ll also share sports scores, online sales, and anything else that I might be interested in knowing as I start my day. I don’t do anything to set this up. It’s happening automatically and I find value in these services.

Bots will come in many faces and forms. They might be notifications on my phone, or built in to my Facebook Messenger. It might be the voice of Alexa conversing with you through the Amazon Echo. It might be your watch buzzing when you enter Starbucks and they have your favorite drink ready, and paid for by the time you walk up to the calendar.

Bots will prove their value as they help users search and sift through these spaces and texts. Additionally, the artificial intelligence, or mimicry of intelligence through the use of scripts will get better, faster, and smarter. Facebook (among others) is doubling down on these efforts by allowing you to create your own bot.

A classroom with bots

As an educational technologist and researcher, I’m interested in the opportunities for using bots in teaching and learning. Now, I understand that some might view this as blasphemy as we consider automating interactions with learners. I see opportunities to utilize tools to empower educators and free up time for more personalized, individualized learning. Most of all, I see enormous opportunity to use bots to support learners in online or hybrid learning spaces.

I’ve been experimenting with bots a bit under the radar over the last year. I help develop and facilitate several open, online learning experiences, or MOOCs throughout the year. One of the examples is the #WalkMyWorld Project.

In this yearly event, we bring in educators and students globally and have them build, connect, and share using digital texts and tools. One of best elements of this project is the connections that learners make as new friends and colleagues support and motivate each other. Challenges occur as learners post and share content (using a Twitter hashtag in this case) and no one recognizes, retweets, or responds to them. Participants have indicated that they felt lost, ignored, and disenfranchised by the isolation. I can empathize with these individuals. As a blogger, it can sometimes be unnerving as you post and share and no one responds. What if there was a way to make sure someone always responds?

To address this I started experimenting with bots in the #WalkMyWorld Project. I built a simple Twitter bot that would favorite and retweet any posts that included the #WalkMyWorld hashtag. The initial results are quite intriguing. I’m busy tweaking and revising the bot to make it a bit smarter and more believable. To do this I’m working on new scripts and programs, as well as adding in some randomness to the actions/responses of the bot.

I have questions about the need for learners to know that they are interacting with a bot, or whether that is important. I also have questions about the focus or support provided by this bot, and how this helps scaffold learners in new spaces. Finally, I wonder about opportunities to utilize bots to serve as a “concierge” to your learning experience or classroom. Ultimately, this bot, and ones in the future could serve as an automatic teaching assistant that is always present and available.

A future classroom with bots

As our is unfolding and new technologies emerge, new literacy practices will accompany these changes. With these new technologies, opportunities for supporting and scaffolding learners will present themselves. These opportunities may help us envision new possibilities to support learning and extend pedagogy. One of the impediments to this evolution may be our own paradigms and perspectives about education.

 

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Also published on Medium.

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