What Second Life teaches us about chatbots in education

chatbotsPhoto credits: Linden Labs/Alamy

Do you remember the virtual reality environment Second Life? Seven years ago it had over 20M users and it was being hyped as the place where we would all soon transact our business and social lives. Now gone and forgotten.

Well, not quite. Second Life continues to deliver real value in applications such as town planning, or the teaching of History. Their journey has been a classic example of the Gartner Hype Cycle.


And chatbots?

Chatbots are all over my newsfeeds this week. They are going to variously wipe out call centres, take over supermarket tills and replace teachers in the classroom.

And they will. Eventually. In some cases.

Right now, we are at the peak of inflated expectations. Case in point: this breathless article from Huffington Post. about a humanoid robot called Sophia from Hanson Robotics.

Here she is being very-impressively interviewed by Andrew Ross Sorkin. Except for just one little niggle: at 4:07 he admits that the interview is scripted. He then to get a bit off-script, and the robot just talks over him.

All the chatbots I have seen to date work satisfactorily only in very narrowly-defined domains. The classic example, perhaps, is IBM’s Watson. It is the world champion at Jeopardy, but ask it to order you a ham sandwich and all you’ll get back is a clever pun.

Get to the point, Ian; educational chatbots

Quite a few educational chatbot projects are getting press at the moment. They point in some interesting directions, but the ones I have tested do not deliver any real value as yet. It is really clear to me that we are at, or perhaps just before, the peak of inflated expectation in the Hype Cycle. Chatbots are not going to take over your classroom in the next year or two. What will happen is:

  • next year there will be a lot of negative press that chatbots don’t work and never will.
  • the year or two after that, they will be forgotten by the majority of people.
  • in four or five years time, you will suddenly wake up the fact that you are using chatbots in all kinds of little niches and it feels perfectly normal and unthreatening.

I am not sure where those niches will be, but I predict they will be narrow. Chatbots will become teachers’ tools of the trade alongside powerpoints, videos and whiteboard markers.


2 responses to “What Second Life teaches us about chatbots in education”

  1. I was talking to somebody a couple of weeks ago about the free text marker that you developed 15 (? – possibly more) years ago. Given where we are with exam marking it is surprising that it hasn’t taken off? Or is it the case there are certain tasks that society, or groups with a vested interest, won’t allow to be automated. Brilliant writing, as always, Ian.

  2. A pleasure to hear from you, Steve! Curiously enough, we are about to launch a product that embodies the free-text marker. We are also talking to a number of parties about ways to use the technology in 3rd-party products. But in high-stakes assessment, the sanctity of A-levels is keeping everybody stuck in the last century. Love to chat about this more, if it is an area of direct interest to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: