Exploring the Teacher Function: Workshops and Bots

20 Aug 2019
Workshop image

Markus Breines and Michael Gallagher

The University of Edinburgh has for several years been exploring the possibilities for automation in teaching. The Teacherbot project was led by Sian Bayne and began this exploration in the project by setting up a Twitter account that responded automatically with students to enable new forms of interactions between teachers, technologies, and students. It was clear that such experimentation was pedagogically generative and that such technologies, arranged meaningfully, could conceivably surface new teaching practices.

Drawing on these ideas, the current ‘Exploring the Teacher Function: Continuing Interventions in Automated Teaching’ project at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at Moray House is seeking to explore further how bots can be used in teaching. More specifically, the project is focusing on the possibilities for expanding the ‘teacher function’ through bots. As part of the university’s interest in automation, there is also parallel activity happening across the university exploring the use of bots for administrative purposes. More widely, there is a growing interest in the possibilities for using artificial Intelligence within universities, but in this project, we are only considering the opportunities bots offer for teaching. The bots being explored here are ‘simpler’ in the sense that they do not learn and adapt to individual users by collecting and analysing their data; the simplicity here essentially proves generative by allowing a parallel university-wide discussion to emerge around the ethics of such interventions and their impact on the teacher and student experience.

We are primarily exploring the opportunities for using bots through workshops (both face to face and online) with staff and students across the campus. Our first events this summer took place on the Central Campus and at the King’s Buildings. We organised separate events for students and faculty, and while the attendance among faculty has been good the number of students has been low (probably because the events took place in late July and August). Among the participants, we expected some scepticism towards automation, especially because of the many narratives of machines replacing humans and the focus on cutting costs in the current higher education environment. This is not the purpose of this project, as we clearly state at the beginning of each event. Rather, we are seeking to extend a conversation from the Near Future Teaching project around values-led teaching with the university community. At the onset, we are looking to identify what kind of interactions would be useful for students and staff at the University of Edinburgh (i.e., the teaching space) and then to explore what types of automated interactions might be appropriate for those spaces. We are keen to emphasise the entanglements in these interactions and how they will, inevitably restructure the role of the teacher hopefully in an augmented way.


Workshop diagram

Workshop diagram

In our initial workshops, the staff and students who have attended the sessions have been enthusiastic about opportunities bots can offer them. Their willingness to explore these ideas has given us a range of new and important use cases that can potentially make a huge difference to teachers and students. For example, one group of students proposed a bot that gives them easy access to readings lists on each course. They also proposed an additional function where they themselves can add books and papers from other parts of the world to the reading list as a tool to ‘decolonize the curriculum’. Another bot suggestion was a bot that could be used to prepare students for tutorials, to redefine ‘contact time’ away from administrative functions and towards direct instruction. This would include a checklist to ensure that students are prepared and require them to outline the topics and questions they want to discuss. When the conversation with the bot has been concluded the teacher will be notified and presented with the information, which will be followed by a more focused meeting between the student and teacher. In both these use cases, the purpose is to facilitate access to information and make better use of people’s time, though the bots can also serve additional purposes such as being a tool for including students in the process of diversifying the curriculum. Some proposed use cases have been within the realm of what current exists in teaching-modifications to a more traditional teacher function. Others are clearly pressing on new spaces where the teacher function has yet to inhabit. Both are meaningful to this project as we map the broader spaces of teaching at the University of Edinburgh.

We are still at an early stage of exploring the opportunities, but we are already starting to see numerous uses for bots in teaching. We will continue running workshops this autumn on campus and online. In September and October, we have events on the Central Campus, the Little France Campus and at the Business School. In addition to seeking input from students and faculty from the entire campus, we are also planning to do some sessions where we bring together students and faculty to expand our understanding of what is possible to do with bots. We will then choose among these ideas to start developing prototypes with Myles Blaney and Marcello Crolla to use as provocations for further discussion. We will run subsequent rounds of workshops to test these among staff and students. This is an exciting opportunity to (positively!) impact the infrastructure of teaching - Feel free to contact us if you have any ideas or input.

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