Sunday, April 29, 2018

Amazon’s Alexa is about to get a lot smarter – could it help teach?

The folk at Amazon have a road map for Alexa that will take it to a new level. In the long-term, this could has profound implications for learning. It’s based on these new features:
Better dialogue
Seamless skills
Better sustained dialogue
First up, you’ll be able to interact without first saying ‘Alexa….’ That’s great, as Alexa turns you into a didactic monster, as if you were speaking to a small child or domestic slave. It will do this by carrying over the context, so that the dialogue can continue, without having to repeat ‘Alexa’, even dialogue at a later time. This carryover feature identifies context and provides replies related to that context, which matters in learning. It will know what you’re trying to learn, as well as how well you’re doing, what you are most likely to need next and support you along the way. This will, eventually, be like having a teacher in your home.
These improvements towards better language recognition and generation, and more natural dialogue, will be welcome, but that only comes if Alexa can ‘remember’ what you both said earlier. Google Assistant already has this feature, albeit quite primitive. Note that these systems already store your shopping and ‘to do’ lists but you can also ask Google to remember where you stored your keys and so on. This data can inform future learning conversations. Alexa will know what you have learnt previously, your level of competence and can keep you in that learning zone, nothing to easy, nor too difficult. As Alexa will  ‘remember’ what you asked her, and use that information to inform future learning conversations, it truly becomes a teaching assistant. It then starts to have real teacher attributes.
Seamless skills
One problem with Alexa is the rather clumsy process of integrating new skills. This will be more seamless. Rather than having to find skills, they will be streamed into the learning process. You may need some specific tuition on a specific problem or skill, Alexa will provide that opportunity. You may need to know how to perform a specific experiment in science, piece of grammar in language learning, practice cube roots in maths, learn a poem in English…
This matters in learning, as teaching is not some general skill but lots of different integrated skills. With a range of teaching skills - providing learning opportunities, learner engagement, learner support, adaptive learning, personalisation, practice and assessment – Alexa, or something similar, may well turn out to be at first a part-competent teacher., then gain in skills.
Just as Google, social media, Amazon’s online services and Netflix, have sophisticated recommendation engines, so Alexa will get to know, not only you, but other learners, and all of that individual and aggregated data can be used to improve teaching and learning. Like Duolingo, it will not only know what you’ve learnt, it will know what you’re likely to have forgotten. It will also know what the strengths and weaknesses of certain pedagogic approaches will be, and correct the weaknesses. In short, it will learn to be a better teacher by measuring this in terms of the success of millions of learners.
All of this offers very specific services across the teaching and learning journey:
1. Learning opportunities
A home assistant will be able to find, even suggest, new skills and learning opportunities. It may know that you are going to Italy, so offer some tuition in basic Italian. Everything from free courses, MOOCS to microskills, could be on offer. This really could deliver the promise of lifelong learning, something that was never going to be delivered through institutions. If we are to pick up new competences in our lives, we need this type of learning to be available, on demand, cheaply, in our homes.
2. Learning engagement
Learners are lazy. We all waited until the last moment to do our homework, write essays, complete assignments. Many of us fail by simply not doing things in a timely manner. Chatbots are already being used to engage students, push reminders, offer help, even offer help on well being (see Woebot). Engagement can be personalized, nudge-like, and improve the efficacy of learning and reduce dropout. I like it when I get alerts, messages, likes on Facebook, retweets, comments on my blog – that approach should be applied to learning. Engagement cannot be left to the intermittent, erratic and formal processes of institutions, term times, teacher availability and training courses.
3. Learning support
We’ve seen how the Georgia Tech bot ‘Jill Watson’ was an effective teaching assistant, as judged by learners, who put it up for a teaching award. ‘Differ’ is already being sued in Nordic Universities. Quick, polite, constructive help and feedback is what keeps learners going. A teaching assistant, that is available 24/7/365, is precisely what is needed to combat the inefficiencies of current practice, where teaching is subject to the tyranny of limited teacher time. Learners need consistent help when ‘they’ need it, not just when the teacher is available.
4. Adaptive learning
When your own teaching assistant, in your own home, knows who you are, your age, subjects you are taking at school or college, job, competences you need at work, interests and lifelong learning needs, that will be spendid. It will adapt to your current needs and constantly be on hand to help you learn. Learning, in a sense, will become what it needs to be – invisible, simply part of your life. It will also be like a GPS system that knows when you’ve gone off course and literally gets you back on course.
5. Performance support
Most learning does not take place in schools, colleges and universities, but in the workplace. There it becomes more informal. You learn most of what you learn informally, not formally, from colleagues, doing the work and other sources, increasingly online. Imagine a service that simply delivers what you need on demand, when you need it to solve the problem at hand. The invisible LMS may be on the horizon. Chatbots, such as Otto, are already on the market.
6. Practice
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice… Learners need to make the effort to retrieve, apply, generate, elaborate and practice what they learn. This is so easily left to chance. But home technology could allows us to do this efficiently, as part of personalised learning. We know that ‘forgetting’ is endemic in teaching and learning. We forget more of what we’re taught and learn than we ever retain. This technology can deliver, efficiently, and personally, deliberate and spaced practice that combats the forgetting curve. 
7. Assessment
Formative and summative assessment have a lot to gain from voice recognition (identification) to the practice and preparation for exams. Spaced practice and a scheduled approach to a learning journey can be known and delivered by such systems and your learning scheduled. Online exams, especially oral exams, may be delivered through such systems. 
Will take time
This will all take time, as AI is nowhere near delivering many of these skills. There are real challenges here around improvements in speech recognition (accents, background noise, false triggering), the recognition of meaning itself in the spoken word (there are many failures), dialogue management (not easy as context is complex) and personalization (data issues, relevance). But the promise is clear, as some have already been mastered, and more are in the pipeline.
Trojan horse
It may not be Alexa, or Google Home, but chatbot assistants in the home are here to stay. This technology is about to get a lot smarter. We’re getting a glimpse into a future where every home will have a teacher. Home schooling will start to develop, at first with assistance for homework, then some active learning (especially languages) then other subjects. Parents pay a ton of cash for extra home tuition, but could this eventually be available for free? Let’s suppose this is successful. Could such assistants become teachers, pushing engagement, delivering adaptive, personalized learning, sensitive to deliberate and spaced practice, with lots of retrieval, formative assessment and even exam practice. Imagine a future where you can go at your own pace in a subject, know with certainty that you’ve reached a certain level, self-assess, then simply sign up for a formal assessment. This is an interesting Trojan Horse.

This is the start of something interesting. I predicted some time back that Amazon may well be the company to create a Netflix of learning company and saw their progress as useful in terms of their AI.  If this roadmap works, they have a device that teaches, through dialogue, as if you had a teacher in every home. Imagine the impact in developing countries, the fact that it is cheap and can scale – scale globally.

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