Thursday, December 14, 2017

7 solid reasons to suppose that chatbot interfaces will work in learning

In Raphael’s painting various luminaries stand or sit in poses on the steps, but look to the left of Plato and Aristotle and you’ll see a poor looking figure in a green robe talking to people – that’s Socrates. Most technology in teaching has run against the Socratic grain, such as the blackboard, turning teachers into preachers and lecturers. With chatbots we may be seeing the return of the Socratic method.
This return is being enabled by AI, in particular Natural Language Processing but also through other AI techniques such as adaptive learning, machine learning, reinforcement learning. AI is largely invisible, but it doe have to reveal itself through its user interface. AI is the new UI but because the AI is doing a lot of the smart, behind the scenes work, it is best fronted by a simple interface, the simpler the better. The messenger interface seems to have won the interface wars, transcending menus and even social media. Simple Socratic dialogue seems to have risen, through the process of natural selection as THE interface of choice, especially on mobile.
So can this combination of AI and Socratic UI have an application in learning? There are several reasons for being positive about this type of interface in learning.
1. Messaging the new interface
We know that messaging, the interface used by chatbots, has overtaken that of social media over the last few years, especially among the young. Look at the mobile home screen of any young person and you’ll see the dominance of chat apps. The Darwinian world of the internet is the perfect testing ground for user interfaces and messaging is what you are most likely to see when looking over the shoulder of a young person.
So one could argue that for younger audiences, chatbots are particularly appropriate, as they already use this as their main form of communication. They have certainly led the way in its use but one could also argue that there are plenty of reasons to suppose that most other people like this form of interface.
2. Frictionless
Easy to use, it allows you to focus on the message not the medium. The world has drifted towards messaging for the simple reason that it is simple. By reducing the interface to its bare essentials, the learner can focus on the more important task of communications and learning. All interfaces aim to be as frictionless as possible and apart from speculative mind reading from the likes of Elon Musk with Neuralink, this is as bare bones as one can get.
3. Reduces cognitive load
Messaging is simple, a radically, stripped down interface that anyone can use. It requires almost no learning and mimics what we all do in real life – simply dialogue. Compared to any other interface it is low on cognitive load. There is little other than a single field into which you type, it therefore goes goes at your pace. What also matters is the degree to which it makes use of NLP (Natural Language Processing) to really understand what you type (or say).
4. Chunking
One of the joys of messaging, and one of the reasons for its success, it that it is succinct. It is by its very nature chunked. If it were not, it wouldn’t work. Imagine being on a flight with someone, you ask them a question and get a1 hour lecture in return or imagine. Chatbots chat, they don’t talk at you.
5. Media equation
In a most likely apocryphal story, where Steve Jobs presented the Apple Mac screen to Steve Wosniak, Jobs had programmed it so say ’Hello…”. Wosniak though it uncessary – but who was right? We want our technology to be friendly, easy to use, almost our companion. This is as true on learning as it is in any other area of human endeavour.
Nass & Reeves, in The Media Equation, did 35 studies to show that we attribute agency to technology, especially computers. We anthropomorphise technology in such a way that we think the bot is human or at least exhibits human attributes. Our faculty of imagination finds this easy, as witnessed by our ready ability to suspend belief in the movies or when watching TV. It takes seconds and works in our favour with chatbots, as dialogue is a natural form of human behaviour and communication.
6. Anonymity
If you have qualms about chat replacing human activity, remember also, that many learners are reluctant to ask their tutor, lecturer, manager or boss questions, for fear of embarrassment, as it may reveal their lack of knowledge. Others are simply quiet, even introverts. Anonymous learning, through a chatbot,  then becomes a virtue not a vice. Wellbeing bots may also want to preserve anonymity. In this sense, chatbots may be superior to live, human teachers and bosses. Time and time again we see how technology is preferred to human contact – ATMs, online retail and so on, in learning, in some circumstances we also witness this phenomenon.
7. Audio possible
The brain is a social organ, likes to receive stuff in chunks and interact when learning. We are social apes, grammatical geniuses at age 3 and learn to listen and speak long before we learn to read and write (which take years). Chatbots, such as Siri and Alexa already exist and, with the addition of text to speech and speech to text, turn chat into the exchange of speech. Reading and writing are replaced by listening and speaking.
Of course, one must be careful here, as chatbots have real limitations. They work best in narrow domains, with a clear purpose. Their ability to deliver full-milk, sustained dialogue is limited. Nevertheless, they can deliver learning functions aright across the learning journey from on-boarding, learner engagement, learner support, mentoring, teaching, assessment, practice and well being.

Chatbot interfaces can be fully scripted using no natural language processing at all or they can use varying levels of NLP to allow for variations on input. At the simplest level it can cope with synonyms and different word order. Large services by the big players, such as IBM and Microsoft offer much more naturalistic interfaces. Whatever your choice, regard the dialogue interface as something separate.

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Fully Connected by Julia Hobsbawn – I wish I hadn’t

Having seen Julia get torn to pieces by an audience in Berlin, I decided to give the book a go. But first Berlin. After an excruciating anecdote about her being in the company of Royalty in St James Palace and meeting Zak Goldsmith (it made no sense, other than name dropping), she laid out the ideas in her book describing networks as including Facebook, Ebola and Zika –all basically the same thing, a ridiculous conflation of ideas.All this social media is turning us into sheep” she bleated. Then asked “How many of you feel unhappy in your jobs?” Zero hands went up. Oh dear, try again. How many of you feel overloaded?” Three hands in a packed room. Ooops that punctured the proposition.... She then made a quick retreat into some ridiculous generalisations about her being the first to really look at networks, that Trump should be thrown off Twitter (strong anti-freedom of expression line here.... bit worrying). Basically playing the therapeutic contrarian. The audience were having none of it, many of them experts in this field.
Then came the blowback. Stephen Downes, who knows more than most on the subject of networks, was blunt “Everything you’ve said is just wrong” Wow. He then explained that there’s a large literature on networks and that the subject has been studied in depth and that she was low on knowledge and research. He was right. Andrew Keen on Stephen Downes accusation that Hobsbawn was flakey on assumptions and research "Good - glad to see someone with a hard hitting point..." Claire Fox then joined the fray.... pointing out that this contrarian stuff smacks of hysteria – it’s all a bit preachy and mumsy.
So, fast forward, I’m back from Berlin and bought the book – Fully Connected. To be fair I wanted to read the work for myself. Turns out the audience were right. 
Fully Connected
The Preface opens up with a tale about Ebola, setting the whole ‘networks are diseased and I have the cure’ tone of the book. “Culture, diseases, ideas: they’re all about networks” says Hobsbawn. Wow – she’s serious and really does want to conflate these things just to set up the self-help advice. What follows is a series of well-worn stuff about Moore’s Law, Stanley Milgram, Six Degrees of Separation, Taleb’s Black Swan, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker… punctuated by anecdotes about her and her family. It’s a curious mixture of dull, middle-class anecdotes and old school stuff without any real analysis or insights.
Ah, but here comes her insight – her new term ‘social health’. All is revealed. Her vision is pathalogocal, the usual deficit view of the modern world. All of you out there are wrapped up in evil spiders’ webs, diseased, and I have the cure. Her two big ideas are The Way to Wellbeing and The Blended Self. All of this is wrapped up in the pseudo-medical nonsense; Information obesity, Time starvation, Techno-spread, Organisational bloat. It’s like a bad diet book where you’re fed a diet of bad metaphors. Her ‘Hexagon’ of social health is the diagnosis and cure, as she puts herself forward as the next Abraham Maslow – replacing the pyramid with a hexagon – we’re networked geddit?
Part two is even worse. The usual bromides around Disconnecting, Techno-shabbats, Designing your honeycomb, The knowledge dashboard. Only then do you realise that this is a really bad, self-help book based on a few personal anecdotes and no research whatsoever.

The postscript says it all, a rambling piece about the Forth Road Bridge. I grew up in the town beneath that bridge and saw it built – but even I couldn’t see what she was on about. There are some serious writers in this area, like Andrew Keen, Nicholas Carr and others, Julia is not one of them.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Invisible LMS: the LMS is not dead, but it needs to be invisible – front it with a chatbot

Good is almost invisible. As the most powerful piece of back-end, consumer software ever built, it hides behind a simple letterbox. Most successful interfaces follow this example of Occam’s Razor – the minimum number of entities to reach your goal.
Sadly, the LMS does the opposite. Often difficult to access and navigate, it looks like something from the 90s – that’s because it is something from the 90s. The clue is in the middle word ‘management’. The LMS is largely about managing learners and learning, not engagement. But there’s a breakthrough. What we are seeing now are Learning ENGAGEMENT Systems. It is not that the functionality of an LMS is flawed but its UI/UX is most certainly flawed. Basically repositories, the LMS is insensitive to performance support, learning embedded in workflow and makes people do far too much work. They put obstacles in the way of learning and fail the most basic demands for data, as they are trapped in the hideously inadequate SCORM standard.
First up - we must stop seeing employees as learners. No one calls anyone a learner in real life, no one sees themselves as learners in real life. People are people, doing a job. It’s why I’m allergic to the ‘lifelong learning’ evangelists who often see life as a lifelong course, or life coaches – get a life, not a coach.
So how could we make the LMS more invisible, while retaining and improving functionality?
First up get rid of the multiple sign-ons (to be fair most have), nested menus, lists of courses and general noise. Talk to people. When people want to know something they usually ask someone. So front your LMS/VLE with a chat function. Most young people have already switched to messaging, away from email and even traditional social media.
This is the real screen of a real person, she’s 19. There isn’t even a browser or phone icon – it’s largely messaging. Dialogue is our most natural form of communication, so front learning with dialogue. A chat interface also dramatically reduces cognitive overload. This is why it is so popular – ease of use and seems natural.
Meet Otto
Otto, from Learning Pool is the best example I’ve seen of this. Ask a question and either a human or the back-end LMS (now invisible) will respond and find the relevant answer, resource or learning experience. It can access simple text answers, pieces of e-learning and/or external resources. So, when someone comes across something they don’t understand or need to know for whatever reason, they have an opportunity to simply ask and the chatbot will respond, either with a quick answer or a flow of questions that try to pinpoint what you really need. If the system can’t deliver it knows someone who can.

It’s not just the LMS that can be made invisible, it’s the whole structure of ‘learning’ – the idea that learning is something separate, done in courses and formal. Training gets a bad rap for a reason – it’s all a bit, well, dull and inflexible. At one point in my life I point blank refused to be in a room with round tables, a flipchart, coloured pens and a bowl of mints for inspiration. The sooner that becomes invisible the better. Book webinar on chatvbots in learning here.

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Monday, December 04, 2017

The Square and the Tower – networks and hierarchies

The Square and the Tower by Niall Ferguson takes the public square in Sienna and the tall tower that looms above, as a metaphor for flat, open networks and their accompanying hierarchical structures.
My friend Julian Stodd starts his talks with a similar distinction between open, flat networks and formal, hierarchical structures (although both are networks, as a hierarchy is just one form of network). Networks tend to be more creative and innovative, hierarchies more restricted. In most contexts you need both. Ferguson’s point is that history shows that both have been around for a very long time. Indeed, he tries to rewrite history in terms of these two opposing forces. He sees history through the lens of networks, the main distinction being between disruptive networks, often fuelled by technology, such as tool making (stone axes etc.), language, writing, alphabets, paper, printing, transport, radio, telegraph television and the internet; then institutional hierarchies such as families, political parties, companies and so on. Networks come in all shapes and sizes. In terms of communities we have criminal networks, terrorist networks, jihadi networks, intelligence networks, and so on. In terms of technology, social networks, telephone networks, radio networks, electricity networks. History, he thinks, understates the role of networks. We now even have cyberwars between networks. This is age of networks.
Technologies and networks
We can trace this back to the fact that we are a species that has evolved to ‘network’. Our brains are adapted towards social interaction and groups. We, the co-operative ape, have distributed cognition and this has increased massively as technology has allowed us to network more widely. Technologies have been the primary catalysts. Nevertheless, much human behaviour has been tempered with Chiefs, Kings, Lords, Emperors and so on… hierarchical structures that lead and control, even the web is now spun by hierarchical and rapacious spiders – the giant tech companies. His analysis of Europe’s failure is interesting here, as we have Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix in the US, and Baidu, Alibaba and TenCent in China. Europe merely regulates. These Oligopolies, dominate the networks.
The study of networks goes back to Euler’s seven bridges problem with a more fulsome look at nodes, edges, hubs and clusters. What is clear is that networks are rarely open and low density. They collapse into clusters and tribes. This in itself still produces, not so much six degrees of separation (actually closer to five), as 3.57 if you are on Facebook. There is an attempt to identify common features of networks; No man is an island, Birds of a feather flock together, Weak tis are strong, Structure determines virology, Networks never sleep, Networks network, The rich get richer.
Then, by example, he takes some deeper dives into the Medicis, as he regards the Renaissance as the first of the truly networked ages. Then the age of discovery, the catalysts being navigational technology and trade networks. But the big disruptive network was the Reformation, partially caused by printing. The fact Luther did (or did not) nail his 95 theses to the door is beside the point. What matters is the printing press that allowed the spread of these ideas and freedom of expression to challenge the hierarchy of the church. The control of language through Latin and of knowledge through scripture was blown wide open.

From the Reformation came Revolutions, again fuelled by print and networks. In addition financial networks, sometimes ruled by family hierarchies, such as the Rothschilds. Scientific and industrial networks flourished giving us industrial revolutions. Intellectual networks such as The Apostles in England and the Bloomsbury Group. Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism were infectious networked ideas.
Networks and hierarchies in organisations
Whatever the structure of your networks, communications, emails, social media posts, slack posts, blogs, stories and many other instances of social conversations will happen, over time. How does an organisation deal with all this, optimise these networks and drive performance?
First we have to recognise that social  both helps and inhibits performance. Open networks often collapse into powerful tribes of belief and power. Social activity is messy, soaked in biases and can be negative in output. Some of these tribes may be good and useful, where they generate innovation and get things done. But there’s also the crippling effects of the mob and its tribes that generate and consolidate groupthink and false beliefs. Gangs form but gangs are not often good.

A solution to this dilemma is to interrogate networks, harvest the data, objectify the process and analyse it to exclude mess and bias. One can look for insights, innovations and valid ideas, to separate the social wheat from the chaff. AI can come to the rescue here.

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