Intelligent Assistants in Education

“When asked in an open question what computers should do in the future, the most frequent response [from the children] was that it would talk to them, followed by it being intelligent and having a personality.” (Sharples, Corlett, & Westmancott, 2002, p. 226)

People have long imagined that one day computers used in education would offer truly intelligent and friendly assistance. At any stage of education, learners may require some individual help, for example to grasp a difficult concept, to practice a new skill, or to try a different learning strategy. They may also need personal encouragement and motivation. Traditionally, teachers and other people have provided these forms of help, but increasingly technology-enabled approaches are playing a significant role. Smartphones and some wearable devices are within learners’ easy reach on a daily basis which means that they may sometimes be the first port of call for individualised assistance. Learning with these technologies is taking on new characteristics as mobile phones become “smarter” and ever more integrated with activities in everyday life, and wearable devices intensify the close relationship between people and technology.

The notion that a small device can offer ‘personal assistance’ to its user has been around a long time. Personal Digital Assistants (PDA) rose to popularity in the 1990s, and the idea has evolved to include contemporary conversational services such as Siri on iPhones. Working on the concept of mobile assistance, researchers Sumi et al. declared their long-term goal to be the enhancement of communications and information sharing between people and ‘knowledgeable machines’. They built a prototype assistant with a life-like animated character to provide visitors to open house exhibitions with personalised information based on their locations and interests. Another early example of a mobile assistant was the rabbit-like animate ‘mentor’ on a mobile device that could act as a guide for young learners on a field trip. Companion robots are among recent inventions devised to provide assistance.

Language learning is one field in which intelligent assistants are likely to be further developed and adopted to help with particular learning needs. Researchers Wik and Hjalmarsson described two systems using so-called “embodied conversational agents” for language learning. The first was a virtual language teacher for vocabulary and pronunciation training - an agent acting as a guide that could also give encouragement and feedback to the learner. The second was a role-playing game for practising conversational skills – an agent acting as a conversational partner. Other researchers (Macedonia, Groher, and Roithmayr) have proposed a new generation of intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) with human appearance and the capability to teach foreign language vocabulary. Studies they have conducted with “Billie”, an IVA employed as a vocabulary trainer, indicate that both adults and children could accept the IVA as a trainer.

The research may raise concerns about agents that could replace human teachers or trainers, but it can also prompt discussion on how such agents should be designed to complement human teaching and assistance, and to support learners’ and teachers’ needs and personal development. Furthermore, the notion of intelligent assistance is very relevant in settings where teachers may be in short supply, hard to access, or when additional practice, corrective feedback or support are needed. Technology advancements suggest a future where devices will become even more integrated with daily activities and will come to understand human intentions. Working on the idea of an intelligent “co-driver” in a car, Da Lio stated that this would be an artificial agent that is able both to drive like a human and to infer human intentions, “including rectifying mistakenly executed actions by the human driver.” These developments in other domains of life will surely permeate learning environments as well. The danger is that some vital human and social aspects of learning will be obscured or undermined by these “intelligent” technologies. So everyone involved in the enterprise of education needs to understand these developments and get involved in shaping their future.

Read the original research

Kim, H. Y., Kim, B., Jun, S., & Kim, J. (2017, March). An Imperfectly Perfect Robot: Discovering Interaction Design Strategy for Learning Companion. In Proceedings of 2017 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (pp. 165-166). ACM.

Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2016). Mobile Assistance in Language Learning: A critical appraisal. In A. Palalas, and M. Ally, (Eds) The International Handbook of Mobile-Assisted Language Learning (pp. 138–160). Beijing: China Central Radio & TV University Press.

Kukulska-Hulme, A., Sharples, M., Milrad, M., Arnedillo-Sánchez , I. & Vavoula, G. (2011). The genesis and development of mobile learning in Europe. In D. Parsons (Ed.) Combining E-Learning and M-Learning (pp. 151–177). Hershey: Information Science Reference.

Macedonia, M., Groher, I., & Roithmayr, F. (2014). Intelligent virtual agents as language trainers facilitate multilingualism. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 295.

Sharples, M., Corlett, D., & Westmancott, O. (2002). The Design and Implementation of a Mobile Learning Resource. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 6, 220–234.

Sumi, Y., Etani, T., Felsy, S., Simonetz, N., Kobayashix, K., & Mase, K. (1998). C-MAP: Building a Context-Aware Mobile Assistant for Exhibition Tours. In T. Ishida (Ed.) Community Computing and Support Systems (pp. 137-154), Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Wik, P., & Hjalmarsson, A. (2009). Embodied conversational agents in computer assisted language learning. Speech communication, 51(10), 1024-1037.