Hey Siri, what do I need to learn?


Use Case: Contextual Learning with a Virtual Assistant

What’s the issue?

Virtual assistants, such as Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana, are increasingly available through Smartphones and other devices using varying levels of artificial intelligence (AI). As they become more and more popular they will be used  in education and taking learning out of the lecture theatre and into a student life.

What is a virtual assistant?

Wikipedia says a virtual assistant (or Chatbot) is a software agent that can perform tasks or services for an individual. This is a pretty good starting point. Virtual assistants of the type available through Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana endeavour to provide natural language processing (NLP) through AI allowing the user to ask questions, of almost any type, of the system behind the device.

What’s the current situation?

The initial benefits from this technology have included:

  • Replacing reference books
  • Reducing the need to memorise facts and for basic learning to be provided by lecturers
  • NLP and speech synthesis provide improved for accessibility for some students who have difficulty writing or with vision
  • Improved learning management using apps such as the Redcritter app for Cortana
  • Identifying images such as photographs taken of: paintings, buildings, cityscapes, etc. using an app like CamFind


How could it work?

This developing technology will increasingly take learning out of the class and provide contextual learning allowing students to relate their academic studies to the world around them and their everyday lives. The combination of the mobile device, the implementation of AI and voice activation can bring learning alive and demonstrate that it is available all around and at any time.

Examples might include:

  • Making an architecture student aware of a building that they are passing which relates to their course
  • Providing information about past events at close by locations that are of relevance to a history course
  • Leading a student to an example of soil erosion, or a geological feature, and providing information about its creation
  • Observing housing projects that illustrate social science topics

In effect the technology can provide personalised field trips for the student.

An additional feature that this technology could provide would be to answer the question: “How  am I doing in my course?” By linking these intelligent devices with learner analytics, calendars, learning environments and e-portfolios, students can monitor their own progress and be prompted if they are in danger of falling behind.

What about ethical and other issues?

Clearly there are issues for students in providing personal information such as their location, however, this type of information is regularly gathered by many of the most popular social media applications.

Many virtual assistants make a virtue of the provision NLP this could cause difficulty for students with speech or hearing difficulties. This could also include non-native speakers whose strong accents can cause problems for NLP systems.

Also, at a more basic level there may be concerns over the use of these systems to provide reference material. Issues regarding the reliability and authenticity of content obtained for virtual assistants will need to be addressed.

Who needs to be involved?

With the use of virtual assistants to provide contextual learning, as with many of the proposed services and technologies that will create the intelligent campus, there will be a need to a wide range of university or college departments and directorates to work together. This may well be a difficult hurdle to overcome. This will particularly be the case where the learning could also be outside the campus with the need for external agencies to be involved.

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