How can new technologies support distance learners?

Guest blogger Dr Julie Voce, City, University of London

How can new technologies support distance learners? Two presentations at the Centre for Distance Education (CDE) October 2019 workshop on Supporting Student Success aimed to answer that question by presenting research findings from their CDE Teaching and Research Award projects. Dr Alberto Asquer (SOAS), discussed how chatbots can be used not only to provide remote students with answers to simple questions about courses but also to engage distance learners in dialogue to support knowledge development. Dr Dimitrios Koufopoulos (Queen Mary University of London & UoL) and Dr Ioannis Gkliatis (University of Hertfordshire & UoL), described the use of a business simulation to provide distance learners with the experience of pulling lots of learning together in a realistic and practical way in order to understand different perspectives and motivations.

Dr Alberto Asquer discussing chatbots
Dr Alberto Asquer (SOAS) introduced us to chatbots.

Using chatbots to improve student progression and achievements in distance learning

Dr Alberto Asquer introduced us to chatbots and highlighted where they have been used in other institutions, such as 'Chat to Becky' at Leeds Beckett University to assist students with selecting university courses and Woebot for mental health assistance based on cognitive behavioural therapy. Could chatbots be used to support distance learning? Dr Asquer suggested that there was a continuum between transactional chatbots and conversational chatbots: the former would be useful for providing answers to simple questions whilst the latter could provide a dialogue for knowledge development. His research is split into two stages:

Stage 1 - a transactional chatbot for teaching simple accounting basics. BotStar with Facebook Messenger acts like an interactive textbook with questions, quizzes and answers to simple queries. Feedback from the student focus group was positive and students felt this was a useful supplementary learner resource, however the chatbot was seen as a novelty. Students liked having visual examples embedded into the responses. Try out the accounting chatbot (Facebook login required)

Stage 2 – a conversational chatbot based upon a case study. Students are given a scenario based on the procurement process at the Junta de Andalusia where they play the Head of Treasury and need to meet with the Head of Finance. They can ask the chatbot questions as part of a fairly open-ended dialogue to help respond to the scenario. It took a lot of time to develop the potential student questions and suitable responses, but has value in helping students with sense-making and problem-solving.

Dr Asquer summarised by noting that there is a limited role for transactional chatbots,but they are still useful. He noted that there is a lot of investment required, especially for conversational chatbots to determine potential student questions. One suggestion moving forward is to engage students in the design and development of the knowledge base and interaction design.

Exploring student perceptions about the effectiveness of simulation games in Business and Management Education

Dr Koufopoulos and Dr Gkliatis introduced their investigation of simulations in business and management with a specific focus on the online environment. The research is in the preliminary stages and started with a literature review which found that simulations are predominantly studied in face to face environments. The literature review reported on student perceptions of simulations, noting that they are useful for providing experiential learning to apply theory and to enable them to see the consequences of their decisions. There was a suggestion that case studies could be used but they noted certain limitations of case studies and that simulations were more effective. 

Dr Gkliatis then introduced the Icarus simulation game used on the University of London MBA programme which involves managing an airport. To analyse student feedback from using the simulation, they are using semi-structured interviews with students from four different cohorts and carrying out thematic analysis. The interview phase is currently ongoing, however initial themes that have emerged fall into the following areas:
    • putting theory into practice;
    • benefits of learning process – learning through collaboration and discussion, and through the experience of others;
    • teamwork – learning how to collaborate and listen to different points of view;
    • developing skills/competencies, such as decision making, critical thinking and complex problem solving.

In summary, the initial feedback suggests that what students gain from using the Icarus airport simulation is the experience of pulling lots of learning together in a realistic and practical way in order to understand different perspectives and motivations and thus complete a task.

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