Educational Design and Engagement

Educational Design and Engagement

Enriching the student learning experience & supporting development of on campus and online courses.

Bots at the Zoo

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Following on from our ALT workshop in September, the “chatbot team” was asked if we would mind running a workshop at Edinburgh Zoo for the College eActivities Group (CeAG), in collaboration with SQA and College Development Network. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse! But unlike previous outings, I would be flying this one solo for the first time.

In spite of going solo, I was very pleased to hear that the workshop was fully booked. I think the title of building conversation with chatbots is quite a hot topic just now and it worked in terms of gathering an audience. As always, I approached the session with a sense of enthusiasm and a bag of paper, pens and post-it notes. As these workshops are very practical, I had a well-tested plan that I took them through. Firstly, I got them to think about a bot concept: what did they want the bot to answer? I didn’t put any restrictions on this in terms of topic choice, I just asked them to be creative. Walking round the room at this stage it was interesting to hear that a lot of the groups were taking ideas from their own practices, such as dealing with helpdesk queries or engaging with college systems and tools. They were instantly thinking about how their own work practices could be improved by using a bot.

For the second half of the workshop, I asked them to pick a question for the bot to answer based on their concept and build the conversation. This is where the discussion in the room really picked up. A lot of people became really conscious of the bots’ tone and use of language. There was even the question of whether the bots should have a gender. How would this affect the users interaction with the bot? These were all excellent discussions and I didn’t even have to start any of them! Which then got me thinking about future workshops. Perhaps this is something that could be factored in as we have experienced some of these things at various points when dealing with AI.

The group were really forthcoming with ideas, ranging from a helpdesk bot to an AI voice activated language bot. What is really interesting about these workshops and other similar ones that we have done, is the wide variety of ideas and the scope which is covered. Chatbots and AI can be a contentious area, especially within education, however these workshops seem to embrace this idea and the possibilities that are contained within it. I am always amazed at the enthusiasm and the conversation that builds out from this within the workshops and that is without even going into any depth about the technology itself! One group decided to create a multilingual voice activated bot that could recognise the language spoken. This was quite an adventurous attempt in the limited 1-hour time slot, but it made the group realise how complicated and difficult it can be in designing these conversations regardless of how simple or complicated the bot is.

One of the great things about my role is being able to run these workshops, gathering insights and new ideas, working with a range of people in different roles and in this case different institutions. No two workshops are ever the same, which is what makes them a lot of fun to do.  It is not just about building the conversation using bots and AI, it’s about their role in general and challenging both the technology and the potential spaces that this occupies.

There is also the added perk of the being at the zoo!

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