ELIZA and Chatbots

sheldonI first encountered a chatterbot, it was ELIZA on the Tandy/Radio Shack computers that were in the first computer lab in the junior high school where I taught in the 1970s.

ELIZA is an early natural language processing program that came into being in the mid-1960s at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The original was by Joseph Weizenbaum, but there are many variations on it.

This was very early artificial intelligence. ELIZA is still out there, but I have seen a little spike in interest because she was featured in an episode of the TV show Young Sheldon. The episode, "A Computer, a Plastic Pony, and a Case of Beer," may still be available at www.cbs.com. Sheldon and his family become quite enamored by ELIZA, though the precocious Sheldon quickly realizes it is a very limited program.

ELIZA was created to demonstrate how superficial human to computer communications was at that time, but that didn't mean that when it was put on personal computers, humans didn't find it engaging. Sure, kids had fun trying to trick it or cursing at it, but after awhile you gave up when it started repeating responses.

The program in all the various forms I have seen it still uses pattern matching and substitution methodology. She (as people often personified ELIZA), gives canned responses based on a keyword you input. If you say "Hello," she has a ready response. If you say "friend," she has several ways to respond depending on what other words you used. Early users felt they were talking to "someone" who understood their input.

ELIZA was one of the first chatterbots (later clipped to chatbot) and a sample for the Turing Test. That test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human, is not one ELIZA can pass by today's standards. ELIZA fails very quickly if you ask her a few complex questions.

The program is limited by the scripts that are in the code. The more responses you gave her, the more variety there will be in her answers and responses. ELIZA was originally written in MAD-Slip, but modern ones are often in JavaScript or other languages. Many variations on the original scripts were made as amateur coders played around with the fairly simple code.

One variation was called DOCTOR and was made to be a crude Rogerian psychotherapist who likes to "reflect" on your questions by turning the questions back at the patient.  This was the version that my students when I taught middle school found fascinating and my little programming club decided to hack the code and make their own versions.

Are chatbots useful to educators?  They have their uses, though I don't find most of those applications to be things that will change education in ways I want to see it change. I would like to see them used for things like e-learning support and language learning

If you want to look back at an early effort, you can try a somewhat updated version of ELIZA that I used in class at my NJIT website. See what ELIZA's advice for you turns out to be.


Is Our Group a Learning Community, Learning Circle or Community of Practice?

Though there are differences, you will often find the terms Learning Community, Learning Circle and Community of Practice used interchangeably. They are all groups of individuals who learn from each other, and with each other, on an ongoing basis with the goal of improving their work. 

Like any network of people, communities of practice are generally self-organized by people who share common work practice. As with the other labels, any of these relationship groupings have a desire to share what they know, support one another, and create new knowledge for their field of practice.

But communities of practice (CoP) differ from networks in that they are intended to be "communities" in which people make a commitment to be there for each other. They should participate not just for their own needs, but to serve the needs of others.

A CoP is very "open source" with a commitment to advance the field of practice and to make their resources and knowledge available to anyone, especially those doing related work.

A learning circle is a highly interactive, participatory structure for organizing group work. The goal is to build, share, and express knowledge though a process of open dialogue and deep reflection around issues or problems with a focus on a shared outcome.

Online learning circles take advantage of social networking tools to manage collaborative work over distances following a timeline from the open to close of the circle. Learning circles usually have a final project or goal which collects the shared knowledge generated during the interactions. Learning circles are a way to organize learning in global projects. They are also being used in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

But again, there is crossover with these terms. I have even seen articles about "Creating a Community of Practice Using Learning Circles

Almost anyone can facilitate a learning circle, whether it is a single learning circle in your home or multiple circles across a an organization like a university or library system.