We Meet Dougal Scaife at Leeds Beckett University to discuss ‘Becky’ the Chatbot influencing the future of learning
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the first chatbot, ELIZA, began to interact with humans. A few decades down the line, and consumer chatbots were little more than amusing novelties which, in the case of Microsoft’s Tay, could quickly backfire. Today, chatbots are an integral part of how companies do business. They are useful tools for handling customer queries, gathering masses of data and expanding brand messages. They are powered by AI and the talkative bots can access incredible amounts of information. Enterprise aside, the technology has applications within various other sectors – including public services like education.
In the UK, Leeds Beckett University is experimenting with chatbot technology to help students make further education choices, so how does it work?
Connecting with students
Becky, Leeds Beckett University’s chatbot, was launched on the 16th of August. In just one day, the bot had communicated with 127 people. 65 of these interactions concerned clearing, the process in which students try to fill leftover university spaces. Clearing is notoriously stressful and time consuming for students, but according to Dougal Scaife, Head of Digital Experience and Engagement at the university, Becky makes this far easier.
“There will be students who physically can’t make the call because they’re so distressed at not achieving the grades they hoped for – they’re not in a state to talk to somebody. For some people, using online platforms to talk in their own time is obviously beneficial. The process is relatively straightforward, and you can do it considerably quicker through the bot than through the phone lines because you don’t have to wait in a queue at busy times for somebody to pick up the phone.”
The chatbot works by replicating the over the phone conversations. The user accesses the bot, receives different options about which questions they can ask, and makes a selection. If the user is interested in signing up for a course, the platform gathers information from them, checks it against the university’s course database and decides if they are suitable. In terms of development, Dougal says that setting up the chatbot was fairly simple and low cost. Becky was developed in house, using an off the shelf initial platform that was then built on. By offering an alternative platform, the team is expanding the possible routes into higher education using the popular self service model.
“There are some who would rather go online than ring people,” he says. “The bot is also available 24 hours a day. We found that a lot of students used the chatbot over the bank holiday weekend, when a lot of other universities were shut. From our perspective, it lets us talk to people at a time of need rather than forcing them down a prescribed, traditional route.”
Although people of any age can enter university, the majority of prospective students are between 18 and 20 years old. Chatbot technology appears to be well suited to this age range because it mirrors the digital communication methods used by younger generations. But, according to research carried out by Dougal and his team, this is constantly evolving.
“A few years ago, we did a lot of stuff using Facebook groups. These days, people of that age create Messenger or WhatsApp groups that are more private and converse in those. We get a lot more response through things like Instagram. It’s all about reacting to the shifting market. People expect a way of getting services online and don’t want to wait around for a phone call.”
Chatbots may be a simple, streamlined way to communicate with potential university students, but how else could they impact university administration? Leeds Beckett is currently exploring different ways to enhance the learning experience, including wellbeing services.
“We’re quite interested at providing some kind of self service response mechanism for student wellbeing that can direct people to the right services. Obviously, wellbeing is a complex area, so different teams specialise in different things. In terms of academic learning there are potential uses, but it’s a matter of maturing the tech that’s available. We’ve got an AI that identifies key words and responds, but there’s so much variance. At the moment, it lends itself more to a step driven process where you can guide people. Rather than seeing Becky as bot technology, you need to view it as a cyborg. Humans watch what’s going on and jump in when people get stuck.”
Although education is often viewed as a conservative, traditional sector, Dougal has spoken to a number of other universities who are interested in using bot technology.
“What we did this summer has caused a stir within the sector. I would imagine that this time next year quite a few people will attempt to do the same thing. We’re glad we’ve got there first. As a university, we always try not to limit ourselves by what the sector does. My team has always sought to compare ourselves to the best technologies and brands out there. . . we try to learn from them and adapt their strategies in our area.”
When it comes to pre-university education, Dougal feels that chatbots could potentially be used in secondary schools to help students choose ‘A’ Level subjects and college courses. However, he recognises that the technology is still limited. Despite the extensive research currently underway to help AI understand the complexities and nuances of human language, bots have a long way to go. So, in future, could chatbots provide an on demand teaching platform? Perhaps – and the team at Leeds Beckett has taken the first important step.