Engaging Students on their Playing Field: How Chatbots can Impact K-12 Education
Generation Z communicates through texts, snapchats, and online messages. But schools still expect these students to operate in outdated systems – checking an online calendar for school holidays, navigating various webpages to check grades or complete assignments, etc. Why teach students old ways of doing things when they can be better engaged through modern, relevant means? With nearly one million students dropping out of high schools across the US each year , taking advantage of recent technology to relate to students in engaging ways is more important now than ever. While old communications looked like phone calls and website visits, the future looks like messenger chatbots.
Introducing chatbots – or bots, as they are more commonly called – to K-12 education is a promising way to tackle the challenge of student engagement. Bots can eliminate inefficiency while also engaging students on their playing field. Integrating bots into platforms such as WhatsApp, Skype, or iMessenger will allow schools to modernize their communications and reduce their workload while also communicating with students through relevant mediums. And since 71% of parents think mobile devices open up learning opportunities and 52% think schools should make more use of mobile devices , introducing this technology is likely to be supported.
Chatbots are services that interact with users through chat interfaces, driven by rules and – optionally – artificial intelligence . A bot can run via any major chat platform – Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc. and can perform services ranging from giving weather forecasts to scheduling appointments to shopping. Today, people are using messenger apps more than they are using social networks , making bots increasingly prevalent. To build a business, one goes where people are. Now, that place is inside messenger apps. Why should schools not do the same?
“We spend a lot of our time messaging – that is how we expect to communicate now, not over the phone,” says Syed Fahad, Corporate Vice President of Mazik Global. “There is no reason someone should need to call a school about an absence or dig through a website to find a bell schedule. These activities lack integration, are inefficient, and require unnecessary time from parents, school staff, and students.”
“There is no reason someone should need to call a school about an absence or dig through a website to find a bell schedule. These activities lack integration, are inefficient, and require unnecessary time from parents, school staff, and students.”
At Mazik Global, we worked to integrate bot technology into our MazikEd platform. Mazik’s bot Piper adds a variety of benefits for school administrators, faculty, and – most importantly – students and their families. Four areas in which we see bots like Piper transforming K-12 education are tutoring and personalized learning, evaluation, student support, and logistics and administration.
TUTORING AND PERSONALIZED LEARNING
Bots can enable teachers to move towards personalized learning and curriculum. For younger students, bots can help teach concepts by walking them through problems at any pace they choose. For older students, similar step-by-step communication or Q&A functions can provide free help for difficult homework problems, allow students to check their knowledge before an exam, and provide quick, easy access to course-related information (like math formulas or physics laws). Tutoring, whether process-based or knowledge-based, can occur at any time without any cost to the student. This promises to equalize the playing field between students at different SES levels at the same school. An added bonus is the ability for students to chat in various languages. Especially for younger bilingual students, this could be a significant help in promoting language learning abilities. In Chicago alone, nearly 170,000 out of 410,000 students in the public school system enter school with knowledge of a language other than English . A bot could transform the way these students learn and interact with their school.
Another function our team at Mazik sees as a helpful integration of bots into education is in evaluations. Teachers are continuously being evaluated by their peers and administrators on their classroom performance. Using bots as a form of data entry – answering questions prompted by a bot while watching a teacher’s class – would allow automatic data integration that could be referred to during performance reviews to gauge performance over time. Bots are a great option when survey data is predominantly qualitative. Similar questions could also be asked of students at the end of each term to provide another point of reference on teacher performance.
Similar bot programming could also give teachers a way of storing up student evaluations easily over time. A teacher can quickly message the bot about a specific student when he or she does extremely well or is falling behind. Teachers can enter as much or as little information as they want, but the bot allows accumulation of qualitative data on each student that may come in handy when completing grades or other evaluations. The teacher can ask the bot at any time for a current list of notes on students, useful for his/her own knowledge as well as a great resource when discussing a student with parents or fellow staff members. Lastly, a bot allows easy behavioral management: a quick bot message can let administrators know about a behavioral issue immediately and also keep a record of problems.
Another application for bots in K-12 education is providing emotional and psychological support for students. In China, over 20 million people message a Microsoft bot called Xiaoice, meant to be a virtual assistant and friend . The popularity of Xiaoice speaks to the impressive development of bots into human-sounding communicators as well as the willingness of young people to engage with such technology. Of course, if such a bot were provided to students by an educational institution, privacy concerns over conversation content would need to be addressed before students would feel comfortable using it. A bot of this nature could be significant in managing bullying and preventing suicide. It could also be preprogrammed to help students work through stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental illness that often develop during adolescence  and are growing in frequency in US schools . Additionally, it could engage students identified by AI programs or school administrators as being at-risk of dropping out. While the bots discussed thus far in the article have focused more on knowledge-sharing or logistics, this bot is inherently social and intended to help engage students in a relevant way to improve development and encourage healthy behaviors.
LOGISTICS AND ADMINISTRATION
One last area bots can revolutionize in education is administration. From a parent’s perspective, bots can save them the hassle of calling school to report an excused absence. A parent can simply let the bot know – via text – when and why the student will be absent. The bot can be secured through passwords or fingerprint detection to guarantee it is, in fact, the parent communicating. A bot could also initiate parental permission for school activities like field trips – sending the parent a message and asking for a response. This would be a faster, more efficient, and more secure process. Furthermore, bots could let parents know about emergency school closings as well as provide easy access to scheduling information. Rather than looking through an outdated web calendar, a parent can simply ask the bot if a given day is a school holiday and receive an answer immediately. The translation function mentioned earlier also benefits parents – this technology can be effective for parents across all language barriers, bringing immense benefit to diverse schools.
From a student perspective, bots could simplify class selection for upcoming semesters and provide quick access to grades and assignment details/deadlines. It would also allow logistical support, automatically letting students know about emergency closings, abnormal bell schedules, and reminders about upcoming holidays. Of course, a bot would also answer any logistical questions a student might have that would normally require digging through a website or bugging a school administrator to solve. Additionally, bots could make the college admissions process easier on students, parents, and counselors. Students could ask a bot about deadlines and requirements for a given college, dates of college representative visits, and how to submit transcripts or scores, among other functions. The bot could walk a student through the process, providing a 24/7, free resource for all potential applicants.
COMMITTED TO STUDENT-FOCUSED TRANSFORMATION
Our team here at Mazik is excited about the possibilities bots provide to improve education through student engagement. Our education solution, MazikEd, is built off a Microsoft platform and integrates into SIF and other existing industry frameworks. MazikEd’s Piper bot is built into the platform to allow us to partner with schools to better student engagement across the four areas mentioned above.
Integrating bots into K-12 education – as tutors, as administrators, as evaluators, as assistants, and as friends – can transform educational communication and bring schools into the modern era. Communicating with students in a way that is natural to them will improve engagement, meaning better connected students and fewer dropouts. It also eases burdens on school administration and staff, making everyday processes more efficient through automation and data agglomeration.