Online Conversational Tutorials


Online conversational tutorials enable teachers to take advantage of natural language processing and natural language generation to facilitate online learning and assessment. They provide teachers the opportunity to ask open ended questions that require the student to answer in short form. For example, a teacher may ask her students to respond to the following question in an online tutorial: "Could you tell me why good customer service is important to businesses and other organisations?" The following video from Bolton College shows how an online conversational tutorial handles such a question.

The ability to record, analyse and assess a wide range of possible responses to such a question is a key attribute of conversational tutorials. The teacher can also pose follow-up questions to garner further insight from the student and she can offer feedback that is tailoured to suit the needs of the student. When a conversational service is coupled with learning analytics the questions, the follow-up questions and the feedback that is presented to each student offers further personalisation.

Traditionally, online assessment practices were seen as being rather narrow; and online instructional designers could only offer teachers a limited set of options which typically meant the use of multiple-choice questions or drag-and-drop activities.

Like so many others, the teachers at Bolton College have always expressed a desire to assess students using open ended questions in their learning management system. The use of Bolton College's cognitive assistant Ada now provides teachers the opportunity to use an online assessment method which closely mirrors the assessment practices of a face-to-face classroom environment. The use of open ended questioning techniques in an online tutorial finally begins to bridge the gap with best classroom practice.

The use of IBM's Watson Conversation Service has enabled the teachers, systems developers and learning technologists at Bolton College to offer tailoured and personalised online conversational tutorials to thousands of students across the campus. The ability to use natural language processing, natural language generation and learning analytics at scale has been warmly welcomed by the College's Information Learning Technology team.

The research that is being undertaken by Bolton College's ILT Team will enable colleagues to improve and refine the use of conversational tutorials on Moodle, the College's learning management system. The team will explore how cognitive learning analytics and adaptive learning environments will work alongside one another to offer further improvements in delivering personalised learning to each student; especially for courses with many thousands of students enrolled on them; such as the College's employability programme.

Bolton College has reached a point where it is unconceivable for teachers and the ILT Team to develop new online learning tutorials that don't take advantage of analytics, adaptive learning and conversational services. If the issue of scale can be overcome, the use of conversation services will not just be limited to online tutorials in a learning management system. Imagine augmented reality or virtual reality environments that enable the student to have a two-way voice conversation with a virtual cognitive avatar or imagine the characters in a video conversing with the student.