Chatbot as a Pedagogic Tool that Engages the Teacher and Students in Negotiating Course Expectations
I used to think that a chatbot is a mechanical tool trained to give factual, straight-forward and robotic replies – ones that could hardly be associated with any teaching-and-learning (T&L) outcomes. This seemed to be especially true in the field of teacher education, where discussions are characterised by highly contextualised and fluid responses often typified by the phrase “It depends…”. I’m really grateful to my colleague Dr. Timothy Hew for triggering my interest in exploring how chatbot could be integrated into T&L. In my journey searching for its meaningful use in my courses, I’ve found what Huang Weijiao, Timothy’s PhD student, proposed about using Doran’s (1981) SMART framework of goal-setting in its design to be enlightening. My present chatbot innovation springs from Harmer’s (2015) SMART lesson-planning principles in English language teaching. SMART is one of the key concepts introduced to students in our BA&BEd (Lang Ed) Year 4 course BBED4223 Learning and Teaching English in Secondary School (Oracy) which equips them with the knowledge and skills to become teachers of English in secondary schools in Hong Kong.
The acronym SMART on the course stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Timebound. Intrigued by the similarities between Doran’s SMART framework and Harmer’s SMART principles of lesson design, I was stimulated to think creatively about how chatbot could be used as a platform not only to model SMART in goal-setting but also to begin connecting my incoming students and myself – even before the semester unfolds – using it as an avenue to initiate discussion among us on an agreed set of goals. As the teacher (educator), my aim of this chatbot initiative is three-fold: (i) to nurture the students to be self-directed learners in setting personal goals which they will be guided in monitoring during the course (as we evaluate the extent to which their targets are achieved through engaging in a cyclic process of reviewing their plans and actions, and redefining their ultimate goal); (ii) to gather information about their interests, preferences and learning styles in order to facilitate our negotiation of course expectations and my refinement of the course learning outcomes to best suit their needs; and (iii) to communicate the deemed-to-be-vital course objectives to them so as to pave the way for an agreed set of goals for T&L effectiveness to be established. Boomer et al. (2005) assert that a genuine negotiation of expectations can hardly be facilitated without explicitness in teacher-student communication.
To foster a warm and welcoming climate in an online environment to kick-start our conversation and to ease the students into a discussion on our collaborative goal-setting, this is how the opening chatbot page looks:
In order to personify the Learning Buddy on chatbot who would be playing a mediating role between my students and myself in accompanying them in the goal-setting process, while counting on Weijiao as the techno-wizard in setting up the chatbot, I drafted the text in a manner which would best reflect my own style. Our dialogue commenced with a cheerful “Hello!”. Students were greeted by their names, contractions were used to simulate everyday chat, and emojis were inserted to resemble my usual email and Moodle messages to them. Interestingly, this proved to have a role to play in amplifying social presence (e.g., Garrison et al., 2000). From the survey Weijiao and I conducted to garner their experiences on chatbot, it was a pleasant surprise to know that some perceived Learning Buddy to be “a real person” as we see the student below leaving his buddy a thank-you note with a thoughtfully chosen emoji before quitting the activity.
During an approximate 5-minute interaction with Learning Buddy (the recorded average time students spent on chatbot), they were invited to articulate their course expectations and learning goals within the parameters of what is laid out in the syllabus. The first question raised to initiate this process is guided by the S in the SMART framework which emphasises specificity in the description of the goals.
Feedback on answers were intentionally written for the students to understand why the course is designed in the way it is. Here’s an explanation given to students who opted for “All except 1”.
This is in fact a deliberate attempt on my part to make the rationale for this goal explicit as students from previous cohorts often failed to see why specific theories covered on other courses were revisited. It’s thus motivating to note from the survey that some of them felt pleased that their communication with Learning Buddy made it “clear (to them) about the expectations of this course”.
Yet this is not the sole aim. As captured in (i) and (ii) above, I view chatbot as a channel for me to deepen my understanding of the expectations, preferences, interests and learning styles of this new cohort, through which I could tailor what was originally planned to better cater for their needs. To me, this information is crucial in our shaping of a co-constructed and ‘negotiated curriculum’ (Boomer et al., 2005; Edwards, 2011, Yuksel, 2010) – one with students at the heart of it.
With the next prompt on M-measurability, the students are encouraged to tell me their expectations for themselves.
If, for example, a student reveals that C is a good-enough grade to get, they will be given a nudge by Learning Buddy and advised to be setting higher targets for themselves. This very much conveys my expectations on the students, with BBED4223 being recognised as a core methodology course in the BA&BEd (Lang Ed) curriculum.
From this, they are guided by the A-prompt to think about how achievable their goals are by reflecting on what they hope to get most out of the course.
The R-prompt then takes them through the process of considering how realistic these goals and plans are or how they could be more likely actualised by inviting them to share a challenge they anticipate facing on the course. On the basis of this, they are offered some suggestions on possible ways of tackling it.
With the T-prompt on time that follows, the students are told explicitly about the collaborative nature of the tasks they will be completing on the course, alerted to the importance of close communication with their peers and given tips on how to get ready for group work.
Linked very closely to the preceding prompt, the final question draws students’ attention to the possibility of working in teams larger than expected, and creates an opportunity for me as the teacher to sound out my thinking behind the assessment task design via Learning Buddy.
However, if I came to discover from the students’ responses, through a report generated by the chatbot system, that many of them chose the option “I don’t like group work. I prefer working on my own” in Question 5 and a number between 1 and 2 for their preferred ‘group’ size in Question 6, this would suggest the need for some adjustments to be made to what was planned. If students are clearly not yet ready at the start of a course to be collaborating in teams, having them work in groups of 5 – 6 may be posing too huge a challenge for them and may lead to resentment. A truly ‘negotiated curriculum’ is one with specific and measurable tasks and learning goals that are agreed upon by both the teacher and students and hence realistic and achievable. Otherwise, this would call for adaptations to be made in a timely fashion to both in-class activities and the support students need in order to provide them with a ‘negotiated classroom experience’ (Reid, 2005, cited in Boomer et al., 2005, p. 131) to be prepared psychologically, emotionally and skill-wise for tasks involving more work-mates. Learning to move out of one’s comfort zone, welcome diversity and respect individual differences are skills that take as much time to develop as socialisation, communication and interpersonal skills. So while we as course designers acknowledge the value of educating them to be good team players in their future workplace, and for this reason this is a ‘non-negotiable’ course component as Boomer et al.’s (2005) put it, our dialogue via chatbot has the potential of bringing me to the realisation that effective T&L would need to take place in more gradual and progressive forms.
For me as the teacher (educator), this goal-setting chatbot has served as a powerful pedagogic tool that enables me to tap into my students’ minds to hear their perceptions of the intended course learning outcomes at both the individual and whole-class level, thereby heightening my sensitivity to who may benefit from what kinds of support in which tasks and activities during the course for optimal T&L experiences.
This innovation of ‘retooling’ chatbot to achieve my desired pedagogic goal (Tsui & Tavares, 2021) has been fruitful and illuminating. Through reflecting even more deeply on my previous students’ learning experiences on the course, I’ve gained some new insights into how their dialogue with Learning Buddy (me!) could be staged to initiate our negotiation of course expectations from the very beginning. It has been a delight to know that the chatbot activity has made the students “feel supported” and “being cared for” and appreciate their “views being respected”. I regard this as a first step in the co-construction of a course that students are made to feel a significant part of.
Having witnessed the benefits of chatbotting, I’m keen on continuing to explore its other potentialities in enhancing T&L. As I’m getting ready for the new academic year, I’m hoping to strengthen my chatbot design through adding a few open-ended questions to create space for students’ voices to be expressed more freely, to seize more opportunities to converse with them on different aspects of the course, to involve them more actively in negotiating expectations as well as to allow for more room for us to come together to co-develop, monitor, review and re-evaluate T&L goals over the year. Only then can our course be truly ours.
- Boomer, G., Lester, N., Onore, C., & Cook, J. (Ed.) (2005). Negotiating the curriculum: Educating for the 21st century. The Falmer Press.
- Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a SMART way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35-36.
- Edwards, F. (2011). Teaching and learning together: Making space for curriculum negotiation in higher education. Waikato Journal of Education, 16(3), 143-156.
- Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2, 87-105.
- Harmer, J. (2015). The practice of English language teaching. Pearson Education.
- Reid, J. (2005). Negotiating the curriculum: Action research and professional development. In G. Boomer, N. Lester, C. Onore, & J. Cook, (Ed.) (2005). Negotiating the curriculum: Educating for the 21st century. The Falmer Press., pp. 118-135.
- Tsui, A. B. M., & Tavares, N. J. (2021). The Technology Cart and the Pedagogy Horse in Online Teaching. English Teaching & Learning, 45(1), 109-118.
- Yuksel, U. (2010). Integrating curriculum: Developing student autonomy in learning in higher education. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, 7(8), 1-8.