IBM Watson and the Return of Conversational Learning – Travis Waugh

Image of Travis WaughThis guest post comes to us from Travis Waugh, an instructional technologist for The Georgia Institute of Technology. He’s also an upcoming speaker at DevLearn 2018 Conference & Expo, where he’ll be facilitating a hands-on workshop on creating chat bots powered by IBM Watson.

If you could give your learners a one-on-one conversation with any person, living or dead, who would it be? The founder of your company? Your current CEO? A respected employee who has built a long and successful career at your organization? Or would you want to look beyond your office walls; what lessons could a chat with Gandhi, Dr. King, or Mother Theresa afford?

What would you want to ask this person? What answers would you want to hear? How long would such a conversation need to last to have a lasting impact?

Imagine for a second that such a conversation was possible, for every member of your organization, without anyone leaving their office. Imagine you could control exactly what message was expressed in those conversations, without them ever feeling forced or controlled. Wouldn’t such conversations—direct, personal, and free-flowing—have a chance to stick with your employees far longer than any mere training course or eLearning tutorial?

Conversation is the oldest form of learning, and it still ranks among our most powerful tools as learning and development professionals. Philosophers and teachers as far back as Socrates have used simple questions and answers to facilitate meaningful learning and growth. Children ask their parents questions to learn about the world, employees ask their peers to learn about policies and practice, and managers ask senior leaders to assess their corporate climate and direction. When challenged, we ask trusted friends and family what they would do in our shoes, and we learn from the responses. Sometimes, we learn what we need from the very act of asking.

The free and open exchange of questions, and occasional debate over the answers, is what it means to learn. And yet, thanks to the constraints of technology and scale, even the best eLearning has often felt decidedly more like a monologue than a dialogue. But those constraints are changing, and machine learning might soon allow us to engage our audiences in a bold new era of conversational learning.

For an emotionally compelling example of the technology’s promise, check out this great Wired magazine article from 2017 about a son’s use of a simple chat bot tool to continue his lifelong conversation with his father, long after his father’s death.

Conversations with artificial human clones are just one of many intriguing applications that machine learning technology makes possible. By reacting to your learners’ language and recognizing their intents, the same basic technology can facilitate more usable and intelligent FAQs, better real-time support tools, and diagnostic simulations of traditional soft-skills, like an online lab to practice giving tough feedback in sensitive situations. And that may be only the beginning.

If you want to leverage the power of intelligent conversations at your organization, IBM’s Watson is a great tool to get started. The DevLearn full-day preconference workshop—Building a Better Bot: Learning Design Powered by IBM’s Watson (P22)—will give you all the skills you need to get started. You’ll leave the session with a fully functioning bot that you built yourself, and a trial Watson account that you can continue exploring on your own. You also leave with a firm idea of how machine learning can best meet real needs at your organization, both today and tomorrow. I hope to see you there, and look forward to continuing the conversation!


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