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Conversational Agents & Distance Education


Conversational agents are computer programs that use natural language and artificial intelligence in web-based exchanges with human users. Conversational agents, AKA as chat agents or chatbots, can be designed to serve a number of different purposes (see and many major businesses are deploying animated conversational agents on their web pages as virtual assistants or web guides. For example, Lingubot, a commercially available chatbot technology, lists the BBC, Lloyds TSB, Sharp, and more recently IKEA, as their customers (See

The use of conversational agents in distance education is surprisingly sparse in spite of their potential to engage and motivate students, two features that are traditionally problematic in distance education. Kerly, Hall and Bull (2006) argue that the integration of conversational agents with intelligent tutor systems may provide a means to open learner modeling in which the system's model of the user's knowledge is revealed and shared with the user in order to bring about deeper learner reflection. Similarly, Johnson et al. (2000) argue that the combination of intelligent tutor systems with animated natural language interface agents give rise to new type of interface called Animated Pedagogical Agents or APAs. Hadwin, Winne, & Nesbit (2005) identified APAs as an important new research field at the "juncture of Human Computer Interaction and educational psychology".

Historical Figure Applications

Our interest in conversational agents began in 2002 with a quest to simulate the most well-known figure in psychology, Sigmund Freud. At the time, chatrooms were peaking in popularity and we felt that famous psychologists could be used to populate our notoriously vacant chatrooms. An examination of the agent software available led us to AIML or Artificial Intelligence Markup Language ( AIML was the language responsible for ALICE (, a multiple award winning chatbot (See Loebner Contest) and progenitor of numerous modified clones on Pandorabots, a website with over 20,000 freely hosted AIML bots ( AIML was chosen primarily because it is open source, XML compliant and has a number of different parsers available (Java, Perl, PHP, C++). Moreover, as an open source project, ALICE's 'brain' was freely available and could be incorporated into the simulation. See for a primer on AIML.

The development and organization of Freudbot's knowledge was generally based on narrative and psycholinguistic theories. Freudbot's knowledge was organized by topic. Each topic consisted of 3 or more units that together formed a narrative like story. Based on psycholinguistic theories, units were structured to invite leading questions from the users that would trigger subsequent units. Ideally, users could advance through the stories by simply following the rules of conversation. In addition, we also created two broad types of content. Theoretical content consisted of the explanations, definitions, and description of various theories and constructs. Autobiographical content consisted of the biographical events associated with all stages of Freud's life.

These design principles were used to develop a Freudbot prototype and a pilot study carried out in 2003 to determine how much ALICE content should be retained in order to keep the conversation flowing. The findings from the pilot directed us to focus on an agent who would steer the conversation towards Freud related content. The chat logs from the study were also used to modify the prototype's behaviour in situations with no matches.

A second experimental study was conducted in 2004 to examine whether the prototype refinements led to improved performance and also whether the type of instructions affected perceptions and behaviour of study participants. The findings from this study indicated improved performance overall, although users were only mildly positive about the experience.
Freudbot: An Investigation of Chatbot Technology in Distance Education - EdMedia 2005
Static image Freudbot

In 2005, the lessons learned from Freudbot were used to create Piagetbot and a third experimental study was carried out with Piagetbot to test whether a conversational interface or a text based interface was associated with better learning outcomes.
Conversational Agents and Learning Outcomes: An Experimental Investigation - EdMedia 2007

More recently, we have begun to explore the role of visual information displayed during interactions with Freudbot. In particular, we created an animated Freudbot using Haptek character animation software.
Haptek Freudbot

Interest in animated agents stems from the work of Lester, Johnson & colleagues on Animated Pedagogical Agents. According to Johnson et al. "APAs present two key advantages over earlier work; they increase the bandwidth of communication between students and computers and they increase the computer's ability to engage and motivate students" (p2). It is further assumed that these two features can ultimately be used to improve learning outcomes and experiences. Lester et al. (1997) refer to these predictions as the 'persona effect' based on their findings that the mere presence of an animated agent had a strong positive effect on learner perceptions of the learning experience.

To examine the animated version of Freudbot, a fourth experimental study was conducted in which Freudbot was paired with three different visual conditions; no image, a static image, and the animated image. Contrary to our expectations, the condition with no image was associated with significantly higher ratings. These preliminary findings are being presented at CNIE, 2008.

We are also looking more broadly at the visual landscape and extending the simulation to include Freudbot's environment. Using the immersive environment of Second Life, Freudbot has been 'attached' to an avator and is currently residing in an office on Athabasca Island in Second Life. Linden scripts have been developed to control & monitor the avator's behaviour in relation to human user input. We are also working to replicate Freud's office as it existed in the early 20th century.
Visit Freudbot's office in Second Life (requires login to Second Life)

Course Related Applications

We have also developed an animated coursebot that provides content from the course student manual in response to user queries. As part of the development, a program was created that converts HTML to AIML.
Psyc 228 Coursebot


Dr. Bob Heller
Mike Procter