What are Virtual Assistants?

As voice recognition and gesture-based technologies advance and more recently, converge, we are moving away from the notion of interaction with our devices via a pointer and keyboard. Virtual assistants are the natural end goal of natural user interfaces (NUI), and build on developments in interfaces across the spectrum of engineering, computer science, and biometrics. A new class of smart televisions will be among the first devices to make comprehensive use of the idea. While crude versions of virtual assistants have been around for some time, we have yet to achieve the level of interactivity seen in Apple's classic video, Knowledge Navigator. The Apple iPhone's Siri is a recent mobile-based example, and allows users to control all the functions of the phone, participate in lifelike conversations with users, and more. Microsoft Research is devoting considerable resources to developing NUIs. Virtual assistants for learning are clearly in the long-term horizon, but the potential of the technology to add substance to informal modes of learning is compelling.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • Repeating comments I've made in previous years on our Higher Education edition wiki: Virtual assistants could build upon the promise of increased accessibility and mobility in learning (being where learners are when they need to be served) we've seen through the use of tablets by connecting learners to learning resources through increasingly responsive ed-tech tools.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Oct 13, 2015
  • In theory, the virtual assistant would be a phenomenal asset within higher education. If considering something like Siri as a baseline for rudimentary functionality, it could offer navigational assistance for learning activities requiring access to remote locations, or in the case of an exercise dealing with identification of possible locations meeting general requirements, it could offer some initial suggestions. Even some of the more frivolous capabilities might be useful within the right learning situation - like requesting a random number within a given range. The idea of a virtual assistant has definite use within research as functional execution of field tasks and assignments as a partner of sorts. - Dougdar Dougdar Oct 22, 2015
  • Although innate to the traditional experience of attending a higher education institution, many challenges are faced by students. As we know these challenges range the gamut from finding the building the class/lab will take place, to learning the LMS functionalities to complete their assignments or to simply find out the type of resources, services and clubs the college offers for an enriching academic experience. Having virtual assistants that are aware of the learner's needs, preferences, and tasks at hand to achieve the ultimate learning goals are promising. Even better, as we strive for personalized learning offerings, a personalization of this virtual assistant could prove to be most valuable. - francisca francisca Oct 25, 2015

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • The probable role of the VA within the confines of its default configuration does have usefulness, and as the sophistication of the host device's sensors hardware capabilities increase, the degree of autonomy of the incorporated AI expands, we will no doubt see a significant spike in usefulness. However, let us not forget that this resourcefulness will be stunted without a consideration of its potential when factoring in peripherals to compliment it. This should be explored when considering the full possible impact of the VA in the broader picture as a supporting partner in learning for the student. - Dougdar Dougdar Oct 22, 2015
  • The need to come up with frameworks and scenarios to aid the design of instructional applications of VAs. At the moment, I am only aware of design considerations for PALs (see link below). - francisca francisca Oct 25, 2015

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on higher education?

  • As we move into artificial intelligence (AI), I can see where VAs will become a primary component of online learning as well as other applications to assist with student learning. As we collect and use Big Data....virtual assistances will become the main facilitator. Currently, we have a hidden VA to assist with the selection of book recommendations on Amazon as well as various apps. - michael.lambert michael.lambert Sep 29, 2015 Agreed! - Dougdar Dougdar Oct 22, 2015
  • Repeating comments I've made in previous years on our Higher Education edition wiki: The potential impact is to further support the learning process through tools designed to be responsive to learners' needs at their moment of need.- paul.signorelli paul.signorelli Oct 13, 2015
  • As is, there is undoubtedly some impact that of this technology within the higher education sphere. However, until we see a more meaningful degree of AI incorporated into the functional design, and unless we have a clearer understanding of its role within the extended learning environment, it will remain more trick than treasure. A VA that is able to analyze your activities, communications, and scheduled projects, and take into account direct requests for topical assistance could serve as a valuable asset in doing preliminary searches for scholarly works - either based on self-identified trends, key words, or correlated topics, or from specific parameters that were provided. In the research field, say at an archeological dig, the VA could review background information from available resources related to the area, analyze topographical maps for probable anomalies indicating favorable dig sites, or review picture you look earlier for interesting details to point out for further investigation. When coupled with peripherals such as visual filters, it could yield any more details. - Dougdar Dougdar Oct 22, 2015
  • VAs could be an answer for learners in large classes or geographically distributed for a more personalized experience similar to that of a success coach. - francisca francisca Oct 25, 2015

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?