7 reasons why Siri could be a breakthrough in e-learning
I thought the breakthrough in natural language would come through games - I was wrong, it’s come through mobile. My son’s friend has a new iPhone and asked, “What is the meaning of life?” It answered, “Chocolate”. Rude requests get “I’m not that sort of personal assistant”. Good to see that Apple still has a sense of humour. But it will be the serious applications that will drive Siri.
Voice recognition is not new, Android have had it for ages, but it was seen as something to use when driving. This is a good thing, and undoubtedly saves lives, so on this advantage alone, Siri has a head start. But Siri is different. It may become as common as people using earpieces, odd at first, then annoying, then mainstream. The problem with mobile conversations is that the person can’t see the environment in which the other is talking, so it gets awkward; secondly people tend to talk too loud as they can’t overcome the natural brain response that you’re talking to someone at a distance. But the fact that Siri senses when you’ve lifted the phone to you ear is wonderful.
So what’s a natural language interface’s potential in learning?
1. Talking means better learning
E-learning usually puts something between the learner and content – a device. It can be a keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, joystick… whatever. This physical device requires cognitive effort and almost certainly distracts and diminishes the cognitive bandwidth available for attention and processing by the learner. Ideally, there would be no such device. Voice is, in fact, how most everyday communication takes place. We see and speak to each other without any interloper. You didn’t have to learn to speak and listen but you did have to spend years learning how to read, write and use computers. It’s good to talk as it’s how we learn.
2. Siri as personal assistant
This has HUGE potential. The problem with much e-learning is the linear, over-structured approach that lacks the flexibility to respond to personal learning issues. These may be; getting stuck, not quite understanding a point, needing more information, needing more depth, wanting to know why and so on. The learner is an individual and needs variance in response. Siri may turn out to be the ancestral Lucy that leads to systems that really do provide powerful, personalised, adaptive learning.
3. Siri as coach
Going one step further, Siri-type coaches may help you resolve things or lead you through a learning process with prompts that suggest alternative sources, strategies and solutions. The Siri voice is already a calm, slightly robotic but friendly, coach-like voice. ‘PersonaI assistant’ is only one step away from ‘coach’, and I can see it being a coach for real, when the software becomes really AI driven.
4. Siri as reinforcer
We’ve known since Ebbinghaus, in 1885, that we forget most of what we try to learn and that the cure for this rapid and inevitable forgetting is reinforcement and practice. Siri, or sons of Siri, could offer the promise of prompts, reminders and practice that really does push knowledge and skills from short to long term memory. It’s something that you carry with you and ideal for spaced practice.
5. Siri and language learning
Learnosity has pioneered the use of mobiles in language learning. You do your homework or assignments as voice and get them graded online. Imagine using the language you’re learning and getting immediate dialogue and feedback from Siri in that language. They say the best way to learn a language is to get a foreign girlfriend, well this is the next best thing, a personal assistant. Backed up with regular prompts, as in the previous point about reinforcement, and you have a powerful, semi-immersive, language learning system.
6. Siri and numeracy
Numeracy remains a stubborn problem in education, with millions failing to pick up even basic skills. Here’s a way of making that dull stuff dynamic. You talk to the phone, and it takes you through maths using natural language. You answer with voiced answers. Analysis of your answers prompts positive feedback and a reasonably constructed system will know your personal level of competence, so you don’t get left behind and progress at a rate that suits you. Siri, unlike most maths teachers could be an expert, constructive, consistent and infinitely patient.
7. Siri as assessor
Learnosity have already used voice for assessment, but the principle of voiced answers, checked by a language recognition system has fascinating possibilities in all subjects. It also allows you to assess people who have problems with written language e.g. dyslexia or physical disabilities. In any case, all those written exams taken by kids who don’t use pen and pencils in real life is rather odd. If you ask someone a question you expect a verbal reply. This could be the answer to remote assessment.
Is this a breakthrough or false dawn? To me it feels like a breakthrough, as it could change a basic behaviour, allowing the device to do things traditional teachers do well – talk to you, give you answers to your questions, help you progress. It’s a breakthrough because it’s part of the consumer electronics revolution and hasn’t come from the educational world (where breakthroughs are rare), that means it has a chance of succeeding and becoming mainstream. I'm not saying that Siri in itself is the breakthrough, but it's the hole in the dam for natural language computing. Most of all, it’s cool and interesting. The Siri sites showing ‘fails’ and Siri talking to Siri, have already gone viral and viral is what we need in learning.