E-learning is several decades old and has revolutionized, not only how we learn, but where and when. We can attend universities from across the world — oftentimes while still holding a full-time job. Corporations and organizations can offer trainings to their employees and, sometimes, even to their customers without the need for an instructor or classroom. Websites like Lynda, Tuts Plus and Udemy have created hugely successful businesses by providing online learning solutions for their customers at a fraction of the cost of attending an in-person training course. In my own personal experience, I became a web designer and, eventually, a web developer from the information and education I found online. I had the opportunity to work for two North Carolina Universities and start a successful freelance web design business through my online e-learning experience. It was a very non-traditional route to obtaining my education and I still like to see the look on people’s faces when I tell them that I Googled my career!

Even though e-learning design, more commonly known as instructional design, has transformed the educational landscape and has changed the way we consume information, there is another e-learning revolution making its way into the picture — the utilization of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Chatbot technology. When this technology is delivered through a 3D virtual assistant, it can create the look and feel of a real classroom and more closely simulate the human interaction of an in-person training environment. 

What is a Chatbot?

Not to be too much of a “Captain Obvious” in my explanation, but a chatbot (also known as a Conversational Agent) is, in its purest definition, a robot that chats. To expand on that just a little bit, a chatbot is a program that interacts with humans through an intelligent conversation via text or audio. Virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana are examples of AI and chatbots in everyday use. You may have come across a chatbot as a popup window on a website. A basic chatbot will work off predefined conversation pathways, however, more advanced chatbots utilize AI to interpret meaning and intent in what the person is saying as well as improving with each human interaction.

Virtual Classroom

What Are 3D Virtual Assistants?

Like with the chatbot, the basic definition of a 3D virtual assistant (referred to as a virtual trainer throughout the rest of this article)is that they’re similar to virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa but the conversation is received and delivered through a computer-generated 3D avatar. The major difference between the two is that physical gestures and eye movement that tracks as the person moves can be programmed into the conversation with the 3D assistant. 

How Chatbots and 3D Virtual Assistants Enhance E-Learning

Online trainings can feel stark and impersonal without human interaction. This lack of engagement can negatively affect learning and retention and can lead to higher attrition. However, the combination of chatbots delivered with a 3D virtual assistant helps to create an interactive digital learning experience that more closely simulates an in-person class environment and that essential human-like element. 

Although the virtual trainer helps to recreate human interaction, it is the chatbot that does all the heavy lifting and adds the conversational aspect to the e-learning experience. Here are some ways that chatbots and AI contribute to improved online training:

  • In an online learning scenario, chatbots can help guide and interact with the learner. They can act as facilitators through the learning process.
  • Students can ask questions or get clarification on a topic in a conversational manner. They can get answers when they need then and not wait for an email response from the instructor.
  • Chatbots can disseminate information based on certain triggers ensuring that the learner understands the previous information before moving on to the next topic.
  • A chatbot not only can work with individuals but can also work with groups facilitating a social learning environment. They can adapt to each individual within the group and encourage interaction by assigning group projects.
  • They can check and correct spelling and grammatical errors and even evaluate and grade exams and homework assignments. A chatbot can also track a student’s progress and achievements.

These are just some of the ways that chatbots and AI can improve the e-learning experience. However, the overall advantage is that they help to increase the retention of the subject matter by the learner. In addition, the learning on tap capabilities of chatbots means they can assist the learner at the exact moment when they need it. They can reinforce knowledge in a learning while doing situation — rather than having to return to their computers to review the information.

Design Considerations for Chatbot/3D Virtual Assistant E-Learning

Creating e-learning programs that utilize chatbots, AI and virtual trainers, you’ll need to ensure that your training content and other resources are designed to be used by the chatbot. Creating resources that can be accessed quickly and utilizing intelligent searching and delivery of the information, will make sure your training maintains a proper flow of information.

When designing an e-learning module that uses a chatbot, it’s important to consider your audience. The nature and demographics of your students should dictate the tone and syntax of your chatbot’s responses.

Break up your information into packages that can be quickly digested by the learner. This is especially important if your information will be used in a learning while doing scenario. Parsing content in smaller modules will allow easier access to the needed information rather than having to sift through larger amounts of content to find what is needed.

Focus on a learner-centered design instead of the more traditional top-down approach of instructor-lead models. Chatbots leave the learner in control of their learning and the focus of your design should help facilitate learning rather than attempt to control it.

If the learning program you’re creating is a redesign of a program you already have, utilize the material from the previous training to increase your chatbot’s knowledge base. You can also include a set of frequently asked questions to create a list of pre-programmed responses.

In addition, the physical characteristics of the virtual trainer must be considered when designing the training. Make sure that the appearance is in sync with your audience. Decide on a gender and voice and don’t forget to give your avatar a name.

A chatbot and 3D virtual assistant will never replace a live instructor-lead class. However, they represent a giant leap forward e-learning that creates a more engaging, interactive and individualized experience. We are just now starting to explore the potential of the application of this emerging technology in instructional design. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

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