Essential Features and Critical Issues With Educational Chatbots: Toward Personalized Learning via Digital Agents

Essential Features and Critical Issues With Educational Chatbots: Toward Personalized Learning via Digital Agents

Jeremy Riel (University of Illinois at Chicago, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3476-2.ch015
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Abstract

Conversational agents, also known as chatbots, are automated systems for engaging in two-way dialogue with human users. These systems have existed in one form or another for at least 60 years but have recently demonstrated significant potential with advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies. The use of conversational agents or chatbots for education can potentially reduce costs and supplement teacher instruction in transformative ways for formal learning. This chapter examines the design and status of chatbots and conversational agents for educational purposes. Common design functions and goals of educational chatbots are described, along with current practical applications of chatbots for educational purposes. Finally, this chapter considers issues about pedagogical commitments, ethics, and equity to suggest future work in the field.
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Background

Definitions

Although these terms are both used in the educational research literature, chatbots and conversational agents typically refer to the same type of software when concerned with educational applications. Both are most frequently defined as software that enables a human user to have a two-way conversation in authentic, natural language with an automated “virtual being” (Gong, 2008). These systems intend for the “virtual being” to provide a human-like interface to users instead of a static computer or “button” interface and can adaptively act on input received from the user (Woo, 2008).

Other less-common terms have also been used to describe chatbot-type technologies, such as chat app, chatterbot, digital agent, embodied agent, or virtual assistant. These terms are often interchangeably used without distinction in the educational and computer science literature. Although each of these terms may feature specific additional design qualities that are beyond the scope of this chapter, each of these terms also often fundamentally features the key function of chatbot-type software to enable human users to use natural language to engage in conversation with software systems. As such, these terms are also important for practitioners and researchers to be mindful of as they perform work in the educational chatbot field, despite representing variations of similar technologies.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Pedagogical Agent: A “virtual being” or artificial character that appears in educational software to provide a person-like, human interface to students as they interact with educational software. An educational chatbot is a type of pedagogical agent.

Conversational Functions: The ability for a chatbot system to process user input, provide relevant output, and maintain conversation. Critical conversational functionality that must be present with principled educational chatbot design. One of the three primary characteristics of an educational chatbot.

Educational Goals: Specified educational outcomes, goals, or learning objectives for which an educational chatbot is designed. Goals that must be present with principled educational chatbot design. One of the three primary characteristics of an educational chatbot.

Educational Chatbot: A specific type of chatbot that is designed to intentionally achieve educational goals. Educational chatbots must have three characteristics: conversational functions, educational goals , and pedagogical roles .

Conversational Agent: Automated software intended to facilitate a two-way, ongoing, text-based conversation with users. Synonymous with chatbot .

ChatBot: Automated software intended to facilitate a two-way, ongoing, text-based conversation with users. Synonymous with conversational agent .

Pedagogical Roles: The specific teaching or assistive role that an educational chatbot will play in the educational process to meet educational goals . The teaching, coaching, or tutoring strategies that educational chatbots will use with students to promote achievement of educational goals. Roles that must be present with principled educational chatbot design. One of the three primary characteristics of an educational chatbot.

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