As chatbots are being used more and more to communicate it's time to look at how we could use this AI-driven technology in education.
During the 1990s, increasing use of the internet led to a scramble to develop "web-sites" at each institution. At the time, we weren’t sure what we would really use this new channel of communication for – or even who would use it.
Around a decade later, we saw social media take off as an additional channel. I recall trying to explain Facebook to my university executive board. They couldn’t “get it” and one eminent dean said, “what on earth would anybody want to do that for?” So, you can appreciate why I didn’t tell them that I’d signed up for something called Twitter as well.
I recall a meeting of university IT heads in which we despaired about our academic colleagues insisting on using a new channel called Skype because it kept "stealing" our bandwidth.
Subsequently we have seen the introduction of two-way SMS text messages, live chat and other ways to communicate with students, staff and visitors. This year, we are seeing the introduction of yet another channel built around AI-driven natural language text and voice - chatbots.
Personally, we are getting used to asking our smartphone questions such as “Hey Google, will I need my umbrella today?”. Already, we can see some entrepreneurial colleges and universities incorporating chatbots in to their communication strategies.
In June, Becky, a virtual assistant, helped Leeds Beckett University to win a prestigious THELMA Award, sponsored by Jisc, for the Outstanding Digital Innovation of the Year. Becky, who cost just £30 to create, provides information to prospective students about course availability, accommodation, scholarships and student support.
Creating a chatbot
Technically, it is neither difficult nor expensive to build a chatbot story around one part of the student experience lifecycle to answer questions such as “When does the library open?” or to perform actions such as “Please change my password”.
It is relatively easy to link the speech recognition tools of a major supplier to a university process to enable text or voice interactions. Integrating with university transaction systems - student record, CRM, email etc - is not difficult. Additionally, each supplier has many pre-built chatbots available which could be customised to an institution’s specific environment.
The most challenging area of development appears to be when training the chatbot to follow the institution’s conversational process flow in a way which satisfies each customer.
Currently, early adopters are deploying chatbots to deliver relatively narrow outcomes and then bundling many conversations to create a more complete service.
Jisc’s role in chatbots
In addition to delivering a range of operational services, Jisc has a strategic role involving scanning the technology horizon. This role is about observing the take-up of new technologies in global HE/FE and in other sectors, understanding whether and how these innovations may be relevant to UK education and developing programmes to encourage the adoption of such new tools and ways of working.
In relation to chatbots, Jisc has commissioned me to undertake a rapid review of what early adopters and explorers are doing within HE/FE, review the activities of the major suppliers - Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM etc - and to make some simple recommendations to help different institutions to get started. The report should be published in early September. Jisc will also be looking at how we can encourage more institutions to explore these technologies.
As chatbots take off across all sectors, there may be significant employment opportunities for graduates who are trained to develop the "guided conversations" which a chatbot will have. The market may well be as large as that for web designers and similar established IT roles.
How you can help
I have already collected details of successful chatbot developments in many colleges and universities, however, I would welcome even more examples of good practice.
Please send me just a simple description and your contact details so that we can get a better understanding of how many FE and HE institutions are already developing chatbots.
Also, it would be interesting to identify which institutions are teaching students to use these technologies already, as this would point us towards pools of people who could help us all to move forward.
During August and September, Jisc will be formulating its plans – along with many of the largest chatbot suppliers – to provide more information and practical support to early explorers.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are able to contribute any advice and assistance.