Mentored at uni by a chatbot

A digital assistant, Melinda could soon be helping students to organise their studies – and may even reduce their stress.

A student is given tips by Melinda the chatbot.
A student is given tips by Melinda the chatbot. privat

Students are facing particular challenges during the corona crisis: switching from study groups and campus life to a laptop and online courses makes it even more difficult for many students to organise their own programme of learning, which is hard enough in any case. Students now rarely come into direct contact with their tutors, so they have no chance to ask quick questions or get assignments adjusted to their learning level. Though universities have been highly dedicated in their response to the corona crisis and have declared this a digital semester, learning in the virtual sphere remains a challenge.

We wanted to devise an entirely new and individual approach to student support.

Neuro- and bioinformatics expert Amir Madany Mamlouk, Uni Lübeck

 

Interactive digital tools could help. They provide students with support and assistance when no tutor is available. Research on such systems has been underway for some time now, for example at the Universität zu Lübeck. Students there who log in to the online learning platform Moodle will soon find “Melinda” on hand to advise them. A chatbot, Melinda will answer all questions about organising their studies. She can help them track down suitable learning material or solve problems they have been set. What is more, this digital assistant takes a proactive approach, seeking interaction with her human counterpart and determining his or her stress level on this basis.

A chatbot with psychological expertise

This “empathetic deduction”, as Amir Madany Mamlouk describes the chat program’s quasi-psychological expertise, is in fact the real objective of the interaction. An expert in neuro- and bioinformatics at the Universität zu Lübeck, Madany has been developing Melinda – the digital companion – in collaboration with Anne Herrmann-Werner, a doctor at Tübingen University Hospital, since 2017. “We wanted to use data differently than in the past – getting away from central data acquisition and devising an entirely new and individual approach to student support“, he explains.

At present, what are known as learning analytics are used to get a relatively good idea for example about what students think of a particular course. However, this reveals nothing about an individual’s specific situation, says Madany. “Melinda is intended to support students just as individually as a mentor, while at the same time giving tutors accurate feedback about their classes.” The chatbot will be as economical as possible with personal data.

Melinda’s objective is not to replace counselling centres but rather to relieve the burden on them so that more time can be devoted to directly supporting students. If Melinda detects high stress levels, she will refer students to professional services. The focus is particularly on those students who are difficult or indeed impossible to reach via conventional channels: “Melinda is no human substitute”, explains Madany. “She is designed to be a point of contact in situations where it is not possible to support students around the clock: when working in digital learning environments.” At the same time, Melinda can let tutors know when a large number of students in a particular course are suffering from very high stress levels.

Amir Madany Mamlouk.
Amir Madany Mamlouk. privat

Virtual teaching boosts project’s development

Projects such as the psychotherapy bot Woebot, developed by a team of psychologists and computer experts at Stanford University in the USA, prove that it is possible in principle to use digital chat programs to draw conclusions about the mental state of students. Woebot is used successfully to accompany students during psychologically stressful situations.

The idea is that Melinda should be able to do even more: “We want to furnish the bot with so much knowledge that it will be able to function perfectly as a student advisor so that students make intensive use of it”, says Amir Madany Mamlouk. Melinda will learn so much about the student’s personal situation that she can if necessary also point them in the direction of psychological counselling and support services.

While the corona restrictions initially put the brakes on Melinda’s laboratory trials, the fact that teaching has moved into the virtual sphere has actually served in the end to drive the project forward: “Online learning has become completely established. Suddenly we find ourselves able to base our work on precisely the high level of online interaction that we always hoped to have for the project”, says Amir Madany Mamlouk.

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