Educational chatbots as cognitive partners

Educational chatbots can be present in open and non-sequential environments such as LMSs or personal devices, working as tutoring partners. This entails a distributed cognition between the student and the bot.

They can assume basic duties so that teachers and students can focus on critical tasks, creativity or monitoring of learning.


During the 80s and the 90s, in the field of educational technology it appeared a dichotomy about technology and learning: learning from/of technology and learning with technology. Where do educational chatbots belong in this distinction? Let’s try to give an answer to this question.

The first paradigm, learning from/of technology, sees technology as a tutor or as a teacher. It comes from the vision of B. F. Skinner’s learning machines. These work as close environments that give stimuli to learners so they can give concrete responses, with learning sequences that adapt to the learner’s pace and achievements, aiming for a personalization of learning. From this point of view, learning is not something that is constructed but rather as the product of a sequence of questions and responses on a specific domain of knowledge. It is an assessed drilling. From a theory of learning point of view, it is a behavorist and cognitivist approach that has an influence on the learner’s behaviour and on information processing. When talking about learning from/of technology,  computer-assisted instruction (CAI) and Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITS) come to the fore.

Learning machine, B. F.  Skinner de 1957.
Learning machine, B. F.  Skinner de 1957. Silly rabbit [CC BY 3.0]

The second paradigm, learning with technology, sees technology as tools that can be used by the student to facilitate knowledge construction. Technology is not an intelligent environment but a non-intelligent tool that, when using it, amplifies our capacities of human activity. It takes on basic cognitive processes such as memory, information retrieval, calculation and information visualization. It also reorganizes human activity making it more efficient and sustainable. For instance, Google Suite apps allow collaboration between a group of students so they are able to edit a document at the same time. Or when making a query in a search engine, a student can bookmark, save, edit and remix information in several formats. This approach empowers students as the main actors of their own learning. It is a (socio) constructivist and constructionist approach (such as Papert’s LOGO), and why not, connectivist (i.e when setting up and using a PLE).

Seymour Papert
Seymour Papert in 1987. Shen-montpellier [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Nowadays, AI-based technology is becoming a buzzword in edtech. Chatbots that integrate AI are a good example of this technology which is being adopted in banking or even in clothing e-commerces. They are useful for the customer service as they can be active 24/7. They are getting popular because are based on chat interfaces that use natural language. In education their affordaces are being explored for efficiency reasons and for their tutoring potential.

In 2018 we published this report on chatbots in education (eLearn Center, UOC) that elicits different types and possible uses of chatbots in educational contexts. There are administration and FAQ chatbots and those with explicitly educational purposes. This last group include drill and practice chatbots and tutoring chatbots. We could call them “educational chatbots”. and include them in the learning from technology group, but I think it is not that simple. Tutoring chatbots are programs that allow a certain degree of freedom and openness, in the sense that students can engage and interact with the chatbot whenever and wherever. They are not a close environment such as the ITS, that are instructional sequences based on the presentation of information and practise exercises with tutoring aids. Chatbots can be present in open and non-sequential environments such as LMSs or personal devices, working as tutoring partners. This entails a distributed congition between the student and the bot.


Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development explains how the learner moves from an initial knowledge stage to a superior one, thanks to expert scaffolding. Now we are in a situation where these scaffoldings can be set by an educational chatbot that works as a cognitive aid. When a student uses a tutoring chatbot tool that offers guidance through learning tasks, facilitating information, orienting and giving timely feedback, this bot is working as a cognitive tool. This adds to the educational toolbox containing tools that amplify our cognition and contribute to reorganize the way of learning, distributing cognitive tasks between the person and the tool. This situation is learning with technology. Maybe it isn’t a disruption of education but it brings a significant change in.

If educational chatbots can assume or help with basic (and dull) cognitive duties, teachers and students can focus on critical thinking, creativity and monitoring of learning. Moreover, they get on well with big data, learning analytics, facial recognition, and so forth.

In 1978, the german electronic music group Kraftwerk wrote the song Die Roboter (the robots). With a synthesized voice and in Russian language, the chorus repeated: “I am your servant, I am your worker” (“Ya tvoy Sluga, Ya tvoy rabótnik”). Robot technology should make our life easier.  In education they can work as our cognitive partners, being part of the learning with technology paradigm. But they could also try to replace teachers as part of the learning from/of technology paradigm. Once again it will depend on the powers ruling education.

Kraftwerk– The Robots (EDIT), 2017: 

Reclaim your own domain

To own a domain can be a basic starting point to have a voice of one’s own. Such a space can afford reflection, showcase and dialogue. How can we connect without it? How can we actually exist?
Students that own a domain can play with tools, build portfolios and personal blogs that they control.  This allows real digital literacy practices. As teachers, we should think about how to integrate this in our educational praxis.

University Mary Washington started “A Domain of one’s own” initiative (DoOO) which consists in giving each student an Internet domain (plus subdomains) and server space during their studies. And as owners, they can keep it at a very reasonable price after their studies have finished.

The name DoOO is directly inspired from Virgina Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” (1929). In this essay the author  elicits the conditions that women need to write literature: privacy, time and monetary independence: ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. This is what was needed to have a voice, a true challenge for women in the first half of the 20th Century.

Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s portrait by Roger Fry, 1917

But going back to the DoOO initiative, why is it important to have a domain of one’s own? What bring to education? According to Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) it is a radical change. From not having voice nor control of what we do in the Net, to have an identity of one’s own.

Someone said that in Web 2.0, if you don’t pay for a product you become the product. Internet offers us a vast pool of free apps and environments: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google and its apps, etcetera. When we use them, they are using us back through the analysis of our likes and tastes, our reading behaviour, our connections and web searches. Afterwards, we get ads tailored according to our browsing blueprint. It is not the end though. But, truth be told, our data and digital identity is shared with these big companies.

Tim Berners-Lee’s idea of what the web should be -an open net where people can freely share and collaborate-  is and has been a business of these companies that guide our activity.  The services they offer are nice, but the loss of our autonomy and identity is the price we pay. Data we upload is no longer OUR data.

DoOO is inspired from Berners-Lee’s idea of the Internet. The student has a name and a place to experience, test and express ideas and thoughts. He/she can install a wordpress blog, a wiki (MediaWiki), a Content Management System (Joomla, Drupal), an LMS (Chamilo, Moodle), upload pictures, create a forum, set up a folder structure to build a cloud space of one’s own, start a digital portfolio and so on. Possibilities are limitless. It is the cloud of  one’s own and self-governed and self-determined.

To rule this individual space, one can use the available documents that serve as a guide to the user in order to make the most of its possibilities. There is a dashboard -cPanel- to control everything. In order to master it, many skills have to be used and new knowledge is acquired. What is FTP? A hosting? A server? For instance, if you want to customize your blog, you can gain new knowledge about HTML or CSS styles, depending on  each one’s needs  (some will dig in more than others). But surely, it is more than being solely a consumer of supposedly free tools (social media).

All of it applies to both students and faculty. Without a room of one’s own (even if it is just rented), how can we have a voice and independence? Such a space can afford reflection, showcase and dialogue. Without it, how can we connect? How can we actually exist?

I think that such an initiative could succeed in our public university (in Spain, or in Europe an in the world). Why can’t we invest in domains and  servers to give our students and faculty? I’d rather do that than paying Microsoft Windows and Office 365 licenses, as some are doing now.

Owning a domain of one’s own, students can play with tools, build portfolios and personal blogs that only they can control.  This allows real digital literacy practices. Faculty should start thinking about how to integrate this in the educational praxis and how subject programs can benefit from it.  This would mean a more active and social participation of our students.

tools and affordances
tools to amplify and reorganise our activity

This critical view of reclaiming our voice is behind this blog which is registered and hosted at Reclaim Hosting, a DoOO spin-off managed by Jim Groom (@jimgroom), the one that coined the edupunk term/concept/movement. I personally recommend it because, since I started experimenting with its affordances and tools, I could cultivate a bit my wordpress skills. I installed a site in my server given space, I added widgets and extensions, I customised it, and I am already acquiring some SEO basics, among other things.

Apart from this instrumental/technical  literacy, I am building my own voice, my own room in Woolf’s words, and a dialogue that I can have with myself and with the rest of the world. It is really worth it!

Background music: Ella Fitzgerald “It don’t mean a thing” (1974)

Digital literacy in favour of truth and freedom

Digital literacy should focus not only on the instrumental domain of digital technologies but also on knowing what to do with them in order to facilitate fully participation in the digital society.
Given the large amount of false information circulating through information channels, it is very important to promote critical thinking skills as a form of digital literacy.

One of the topics that I find most relevant in education is digital literacy to foster critical thinking and to distinguish between truth and lies. If we were part of a society where its citizens swallowed lies as if they were truths, life would be really painful. Maybe we are heading to such scenario.

There have always been truth and lies in traditional media (press, radio, TV). Internet has lots of information streams and channels where we consume information, react to it, make comments, share, and make it viral. It also seems necessary to know what is true and what is not.

We can find recent examples of this. From simple and innocent hoaxes, spamming, clickbaiting, to “news” that foster unhealthy habits, and the change of political views that can make one political party win and influence the way a country takes (start a war, increase/decrease taxes, etcetera).

Sketch of  Monty Pyhton’s Flying Circus, 1970.

There are funny hoaxes such as the one of the rejection of Albert Einstein’s application as an associate professor at the”University of Bern”. This letter was identified as a forgery by the same university. There are many clues that indicate it is a fabrication. But this is just a funny little white lie.

alfabetización literacy hoax einstein

Unfortunately, there are a lot of evil examples that have negatively influenced elections at different levels. The list is too long. ¿what would have happened if citizens had more critical thinking skills? ¿Did we we have these skills yet? We will never find out, but what we do know is that everything would have been more fair. These lies are now called post-truth, alternative facts and fake news. The first concept was the word of year 2016 according to Oxford dictionaries, and it is defined not as a noun (although used as such) but as an adjective (i.e: post-truth politics). It has to do with emotional aspects and personal beliefs, to make us more gullible.

Sometimes lies are orchestrated by governments or media, directly or not. According to Carey (2007), sociologists of the School of Chicago (Mead, Cooley, Park, Goffman, etc), desdendants of Dewey, first, there is a truth with objects, events and processes that can be observed. Second, there is a language or symbols that name them and create descriptions of the real world. On the one hand, there is reality and, on the other, our communication of it. Thus, reality is not independent of communication of reality itself. It is produced by communication and by language. And if lies do exist, then there is a ground for intoxication and mirage.

alfabetización literacy
Contradiction between the two communication modes. ¿what should we think it is?

René Magritte’s painting (1898-1967), La trahison des images, 1929. source: University of Alabama site, “Approaches to Modernism”: [1], Fair use,

Another related problem are filter bubbles that select the information we receive through networks,  filtered according to our priorities and political preference. Different algorithms supply us with information that is lacking pluralism and is clearly biased. This issue appeared on Obama’s farewell speech: the promotion of groups and communities trapped inside their molded ideologies based on opinions and not facts. Facebook tried to stop these fake news. We also have fact checking sites such as or but these are of no use outside North-America. What about the rest of the world? We are late!

Apart from AI solutions that help us get reliable information, the best available filter are critical thinking skills. Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, said that “his biggest concern is to equip the online netizen with tools to protect himself or herself, to detect attempts to attack or otherwise harm someone”. Digital literacy should not focus exclusively on software skills but promote critical thinking skills to know what is truth and what is lie.

Bryan Alexander said in one of his blogposts that “There is a shared understanding that digital literacy involves a mixture of technical, social, and personal capacities.  And there is a rising awareness that digital literacy means learners are social, participatory makers. (…)”. We (and our learners) are not just consumers of information anymore but actors that contribute to the increasing flow of (fake or not) information and knowledge. Our relationship with information has changed.

Howard Rheingold wrote in 2009 the post “Crap Detection 101”. He proposed methods to assess credibility in what we find on the web though triangulation processes (that many credible sources can certify what is being claimed). Also, by asking questions such as: Who is the author? Which is the domain? How is the web designed? Does it have ads? Are the sources known and traceable? etcetera. Here we could add information contrasting skills that use boolean and advanced search options in web browsers.  Google’s reverse image search can be very useful to unmask  lies. These basic actions should be learnt for the sake of truth.

We are facing an issue that we have to seriously address as educators. This means it should be included it in the curriculum (in primary education, initiatives like this can help students increase their awareness of fake news and fake messages such as this one perpetrated by a minister of a democratic state of the European Union). And we have to adress this in secondary education, higher education, adult education, in formal, non-formal and informal education.

Fully participatory citizens must not be gullible and unwary. In Rheingold’s words, “the issue of information literacy could be even more important than the health or education of some individuals. Fundamental aspects of democracy, economic production, the discovery and use of knowledge might be at stake.


Carey, J. W. (2007). A Cultural Approach to Communication. In R. T. Craig & H. Müller (Eds.) Theorizing Communication. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore: SAGE Publications.

Background music: Some Humans ain’t Human, John Prine (2005)

The “transmission for transmission’s sake”

Now that we are starting our courses it is good to reflect on the reasons why we choose an active teaching approach instead of  the transmission-based methodology.
Traditionally, the transmission-based method has been dominant in education. Nowadays, it seems totally extemporaneous and counterproductive.

On my first blogpost I wrote that it is useless to base fomal education in the transmissive model due to the vast amounts of information provided by the advent of the Information and Knowledge Society. I got the feeling that to give or to receive transmissive-based lectures at the university was not working anymore and that it was even ridiculous.  As a lecturer I use this system from time to time when it is real necessary:  if I have to give more “processed” information, if I have to introduce a topic to situate learners, to save time, because what is to be learned is hard to understand, etcetera.

The next video is just an example of the consequences of certain lectures that are going on in the world:

The ways of student Bliss can be arguable and not suitable but his claims are crystal clear. There is a crazy scenario created by the unbalanced transition between the old world and the new world. The former is based on examinations  in formal education terms: to dump what has been memorize just before an absolute oblivion. Is this what we re looking for as educators? Is this the ends of education? I believe not.  Personally, I prefer to work on a few (important) things in a situated and significant way, specially from an active perspective.

The “transmission of information’s torture” often means a lack of pedagogical savoir faire and a few knowledge of what is to be taught. And this is felt by the students. It is an information that has been insufficiently learnt by the emitter that transmits information in a plain, unconnected and superficial. This leads  to  boredom. If a former victim of mine of “trasmission of information’s torture” is reading this, my sincere apologies. It was not sadisme; I didn’t know what I was doing.

According to the mismatches between the old world’s and the new world’s teaching methods, two years ago Dr. Miquel Àngel Prats professor of Universitat Ramon Llull, wrote a tweet about “Petite Poucette” (2012), a book by the French philosopher and Stanford professor Michel Serres. It was a great finding (it is a proof that networks are not always confusing us. It is just a matter of building a good PLE :-)). Well, the book describes the mismatch between the old world (modernity in the Enlightenment, the monolitic, etcetera) and the present world  (postmodernity, liquidity, hyperconnectivity, …). It elicits the rigidity of certain institutions of society and culture and where education is not an exception. And it is quite funny that it is written by an octogenary man.

Serres says in a compact style: With the written form, Greeks invented paideia; after the press was created, pedagogy treaties started to wander around. Today? I repeat, ¿what should we transmit? knowledge? But how if it is already available and objectivated across networks. Transmit it to everyone in the world? From now on, knowledge is accessible to everybody. How can we transmit it? It is done already.

Transmission is not useful when knowledge is already distributed
Technology and knowledge

Knowledge is already “transmitted and distributed”. Therefore we don’t have to transmit it. We can also access it from the little smart device we carry in our pockets, wherever and whenever we please. This does not mean that school of formal education have lost its meaning because everything is taught or learned. That would be false. There is a lot to do, maybe more than ever! and a big range of ways to promote learning rather than knowledge transmission.

With the objective of learning certain concepts, processes, competences, skills, attitudes and values we must create activities that make our students get in touch with knowledge; that it connects with what we already know.  That we, educators and students, make it ours. This is why active education and intersubjectivity is so important. Thus, transmission for transmission’s sake -and it is something that goes much further than death by powerpoint, which is necessary but just aesthetic-must cease.

It is important to promote inquiry, debate, collaboration, information management, work with information streams, and to implement information digital literacy skills (the learning to learn concept, criticized by many outside and inside the educational sectors). With this complex scenario it is fundamental to make space to engagement and creativity.

We are talking about how to organise teaching and learning. Without this change there are no skills nor competences and even less learning. The idea of “sage on the stage” to “a guide on the side”  written by Alison King had total sense in 1993. Today, it is totally necessary.

Background music: “Baba O’Riley”,  The Who (The Kids Are Alright, 1971). 

Are we living in a time of no-education?

Education forgot its ends during Modernity. Postmodernity is reversing this error.
If the Enlightenment’s educational project failed, today we find all the ingredients for its success.

Are we living in a time of no-education? This question arised from a conference made by Dr. Salvi Turró in 2014. It was entitled “Education and Enlightenment” and dealed with how the Enlightenment’s educational project simply failed. Kant, Schiller and Fichte were aware that education was being limited to the “erudition/scholarship/culture” elements, without taking into account the education ends.

According to Kant, there were three moments in the education of the child/youngster. First, a necessary negative moment: discipline learning. A second positive moment of competence and skills learning (afforded by the child’s cognitive development). This led to the third and last moment which relates strictly to education (Bildung) where we find personal autonomy, the sense of duty and the acknowledgement of rational human beings alike. This third level is what is known as being educated. If we limit education to the first two moments then we would be talking about mere training: the no-education. Educating implies the establishment of purposes that put everything together and shape human beings.

The main idea of the conference was that moral ideals were forgotten in children and youth education in favour of teaching technical knowledge and social sciences (the instrumental rationality). The Enlightenment forgot about Humanity’s ends which were precisely the elements on which it was rooted. This same problem was radically identified by Rousseau himself several years before as one of the biggest problems of human beings: a senseless education decorates our intelligence and corrupts our minds. (…) Huge buildings costly educate our youth teaching them all the things, except their duties.

education enlightenmentSchool of Application “J. J. Rousseau” in Colmar, France

At the end of the conference, the speaker posed the next question: If education today is based on the Information and Knowledge Society, Kant, Schiller and Fichte would say that our educational system is a system for no-education. Is it really that we are living a an age of “no-education”?

Modernity, which appeared after the Enlightenment, brought ends and moral (values) to society, but it ended up in barbarity (i.e: capitalism, positivism, socialism, communism, futurism, fascism and an excess of aesthetics). In the 21st Century, Postmodernity meant a crisis of these principles, and their atomization and liquation. But something wonderful is going on: the 21st century is opening its doors to knowledge, what the Enlightenment intellectuals were longing for humanity. Data is growing just as much as knowledge, rapidly and sometimes exponentially. And this is what is making impossible -yes, impossible- an education based on information transmission and on the Encyclopaedia. It’s absolutely useless now.

Nowadays, there is an active appropriation of contents by the student, a knowledge re-elaboration and also the necessary learning of skills (Kant’s negative moment of education). The traditional learning limits are surpassed. The informal education power is recognized and is stepping into the classroom, just like games, narratives and emotions. The classroom is being redesigned and connected to the world. The curriculum is no longer something to be taught in a linear and compartmentalized way. It is approached in an interdisciplinary and active manner. It has to be significative, collaborative, and situated through project activities and problem-based learning, with the help of real methodologies and tools.

There is a permeability like never before in the walls of formal education. Is there an alternative? Education is redefining its ends. The Information and Knowledge Society puts the Encyclopaedic education to an end and, step by step, it tends to the learning to be and to the learning to live together, two pillars of education that were fixed by the UNESCO reports.

All those failed ideals of the Enlightenment’s education project can succeed today. Education has to relocate Modernity’s no-education ways because they are of no use for today’s Humanity’s needs. I have the impression that there is a lot of hope and optimism for this readjustment. This is shown by the numerous educational initiatives worldwide, collective and individual and under several names and tags, that aim to reach to a wider audience.

The current educational project (or projects) should prevail over barbarity. But, as it occurred during the Enlightenment, we can still spoil it. I am afraid maybe we will have to talk about it in another time. For now, let’s retain this idea: “Man can only become man by education. He is merely what education makes of him. (…) It is delightful to realise that through education human nature will be continually improved, and brought to such a condition as is worthy of the nature of man. This opens out to us the prospect of a happier human race in the future.. (…) (Immanuel Kant, 1803).

Background music: Another Brick in the Wall (Pink Floyd, The Wall 1979):