My first experience of creating a chatbot, and how bots might be used in teaching foreign languages

In preparation for the next academic year (which in Australia will begin in February) I am exploring new ways of assessing students in foreign language units, especially at first year level.

Last Friday I created a chatbot using Microsoft’s QnA Maker and the Azure cloud computing platform. You can have a play with it the foot of this post.

It’s MichelSerresBot, a very simple Q&A chatbot that recognises four questions about the philosopher Michel Serres and is pre-loaded with appropriate answers:

  • Qui est Michel Serres?
    • Un philosophe français.
  • Combien de livres Michel Serres a-t-il écrits ?
    • Il a écrit plus de 50 livres.
  • Pourquoi devrais-je lire les livres de Michel Serres ?
    • Vous devez lire ses livres si vous vous intéressez à l’écologie, à la littérature, à la philosophie comme moteur d’invention, à l’interdisciplinarité ou aux sciences.
  • Pourquoi Michel Serres n’est-il pas mieux connu ?
    • Parce qu’il n’est pas une « marque » comme d’autres philosophes.

Interestingly, it also understands variations on those questions, as you can see in the screenshot below.

The bot tries to guess what question you are asking, and you can tinker with its tolerance levels. It can misinterpret questions that resemble those it recognises. For example, with the default tolerance setting “Pourquoi Michel Serres?” [Why Michel Serres?] gives the answer “Un philosophe français” [A French philosopher].

I dare say that bots like this sort of bot could have many uses in undergraduate teaching, from transforming FAQs in a unit’s LMS page through learning how to formulate questions, to framing small research tasks, but in this post I want to focus on the use of chatbots in assessment. Not that the chatbot assesses the students (please, no!), but that the students use the capabilities of a bot to sift, structure, present and discover information. Here’s a sketch of how it might work:

  • A first year cohort is divided into groups of five or six.
  • Each group either chooses or is assigned a research topic relevant to the unit, perhaps from a list provided by the unit coordinator or perhaps by each group suggesting a topic for approval. In my unit the topics would be within the field of French culture.
  • The group then has to research their topic and distinguish between important and incidental information, prioritising the most important things to know in the area.
  • They condense those most important areas into a list of questions and answers (say a minimum of forty and a maximum of fifty), formulated in the foreign language.
  • They submit the list of questions and answers in a text file to the unit coordinator, in a format readable by QnA Maker (question [tab] answer [new line]: no other markup needed).
  • The coordinator then turns each of the lists into a chatbot (this can be done quite quickly, I found today), and hosts each bot either on the LMS or an a website like this one.
  • Each group is then assigned the chatbot of another group and has to interact with it in order to find out as much information as they can about the area in question. Azure keeps a record of all the questions asked and answers given.
  • The mark for the assignment is part peer-assessment (the group seeking to extract information from the chatbot is given a set of criteria including comprehensibility, ease of use and so forth) and part assessed by the unit coordinator, who marks the question and answer document of the first group according to criteria covering both language and content, and marks the adeptness of the second group at asking questions that elicit the information it contains.

It appears that the language of the interface can be changed from English to French, but that’s for another day. What Friday’s experiment showed me was that there is enough potential in chatbots for me to give them more thought as I plan my teaching for next year.

So here is MichelSerresBot. Remember, it’s a prototype and only recognises four questions…

New Accumulator Test for Excel-based Vocabulary Learning Tool

I have added a new “Accumulator” test to Vocab Book, the Excel-based vocabulary learning tool I wrote last year. The new test simulates a tried and tested learning method: Imagine a vocab book in two columns with English words or phrases on the left and their target language translations on the right. At school I used to learn vocabulary by covering up one of the columns with a folded piece of paper and revealing each word in turn, putting a mark by the vocab item if I couldn’t remember its translation or if I guessed it incorrectly. The new test simulates that good old method, with the added feature that it remembers how many times you have guessed each word or phrase incorrectly (which is why I decided to call the test “Accumulator”) and allows you to sort the list so that the items you keep getting wrong rise to the top.

Accumulator 1

You can purchase Vocab Book securely through PayPal (it’s $5 Australian) by following this link. If you aren’t sure whether to take the plunge and spend a whole $5 on Vocab Book, you might want to download and try Vocab Book Lite, a limited version with only three built-in tests and no facility to create an Mp3 or printed book of your vocab list. You’ll also be reassured to know that I’m happy to provide a no quibbles 14-day refund to anyone who purchases Vocab Book only to find it doesn’t work on their machine.

For fuller information on Vocab Book, along with its sister workbooks Memorise It and Revision Aid, see here.

Suite of Excel-based study aids to download: Vocab Book, Revision Aid and Memorise It

Vocab Book Revision aid Memorise it

I have now finished writing the suite of three Excel-based learning tools I’ve been working on for the past few weeks, and on this page I want to bring them together, summarise what they can do, and offer all the download links in one place.

Vocab Book

Vocab Book is a powerful, fully-featured vocabulary organiser with six different built-in tests that train the user in all four key areas of language acquisition: listening, speaking, reading and writing

  • Source to target language ‘Accumulator’ test (uncover the answers one by one and tell Vocab Book whether you guessed the word or phrase correctly)
  • Target to source language ‘Accumulator’ test (uncover the answers one by one and tell Vocab Book whether you guessed the word or phrase correctly)
  • Source to target language question and answer (when prompted with the source language word or phrase, write it in the target language and Vocab Book will tell you whether you were correct)
  • Target to source language question to answer (when prompted with the target language word or phrase, write it in the source language and Vocab Book will tell you whether you were correct)
  • Multiple Choice
  • Oral questions: The computer speaks words and phrases in the source language and the user has to write the correct translation
  • Dictation: The computer speaks words and phrases in the target language and the user has to transcribe what he or she hears
  • Pronunciation: The computer speaks words and phrases in the target language and the user has to pronounce the same phrases (using a microphone connected to their computer)

Vocab Book screenshot 2

The workbook links directly to online dictionaries (opening definitions and translations in a Chrome browser tab) so words and phrases can be looked up with one click.

Vocab Book screenshot 1

The user can enter up to 2000 words or phrases into any copy of Vocab Book (but you can have as many copies as you want).

After each test, the user receives a score, and can send the words and phrases they answered correctly to an archive list so that the next test only contains those items that have been answered incorrectly in the past.

The user can create Mp3 and paper-based vocab lists to self-test when away from the computer.

Supported languages are Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Spanish and Ukranian.

You can purchase Vocab Book securely through PayPal (it’s $5 Australian) by following this link. If you aren’t sure whether to take the plunge and spend a whole $5 on Vocab Book, you might want to download and try Vocab Book Lite, a limited version with only three built-in tests and no facility to create an Mp3 or printed book of your vocab list. You’ll also be reassured to know that I’m happy to provide a no quibbles 14-day refund to anyone who purchases Vocab Book only to find it doesn’t work on their machine.

 

Revision Aid

Revision Aid is a free tool to help you revise for tests and exams. You can use it for testing yourself on anything that can be expressed in a question and answer form, like mathematical equations, facts, formulae, or historical dates.

Revision Aid screenshot 1

Test yourself in four different ways:

  • question to answer
  • answer to question
  • multiple choice question to answer
  • multiple choice answer to question

Revision Aid Screenshot 2

After each test, the user receives a score, and can send the words and phrases they answered correctly to an archive list so that the next test only contains those items that have been answered incorrectly in the past.

The download link can be found here.

 

Memorise It

Memorise It is a free Excel-based memory tool that helps you to remember facts, poetry, lines for a play, or any other text you need to commit to memory. Test yourself on your memory texts in three ways:

  • multiple choice
  • question and answer
  • cloze (fill in the gaps)

Screenshot Memorise It

After each test, the user receives a score, and can send the words and phrases they answered correctly to an archive list so that the next test only contains those items that have been answered incorrectly in the past.

Here is the download link.

Let me know if you find any bugs, or if there are any additional features you would like to see in future versions. I hope they help you learn stuff!

 

First Vocab Book testimonials

Many thanks to those who have been using and testing Vocab Book. I have ironed out a couple of minor bugs.

Thanks too to those who have sent through encouraging words about the workbook. Here are two of the first testimonials:

I love the Excel vocab book […] I have sent the link to my Mum, who is currently learning French. What a great tool!

I downloaded Vocab Book (which, being a mature age student, is exactly what I need to keep up with all the bright young brains at Monash) […] Thank you for putting your program on the web for everyone, I think it’s brilliant.

Free new revision aid software – helps you learn dates, facts, formulae, equations and anything you can express as text

As a complement to Vocab Book and Memorise It, I have written a third Excel-based study tool, called Revision Aid.

Revision Aid screenshot 1

Here is the blurb:

Revision Aid is a free excel-based workbook to help you revise for tests and exams. You can use it for testing yourself on anything that can be expressed in a question and answer form, like mathematical equations, facts, formulae, or historical dates. Test yourself in four different ways: question to answer, answer to questions, multiple choice question to answer or multiple choice answer to question.

Revision Aid Screenshot 2

Here’s what it can do…

Quick start guide

Multiple choice test

Backwards multiple choice test

Question and Answer test

Backwards Question and Answer test

You can  download Revision Aid for free by following this link.

Free new Excel-based memorisation aid and self-tester

As a spin-off from Vocab Book I have written a memorisation aid called Memorise It. Here is the blurb:

Memorise It is a free Excel-based memory tool that helps you to remember facts, poetry, lines for a play, or any other text you need to commit to memory. Test yourself on your memory texts in three ways:  multiple choice, question and answer, and cloze (fill in the gaps).

Screenshot Memorise It

Here are the demonstration videos:

Quick start guide:

Cloze test:

Multiple Choice test:

Multiple choice backwards:

Q and A backwards:

Here is the link to download the latest version. I’m reasonably confident it is stable in Windows 7 and 8 running Excel 2010 or 2013. I haven’t tested it on a mac yet. If you’re using Excel 2013 the cloze test takes a while to initiate, but if you wait it will eventually crunch the numbers and hand you back control.

Powerful and fully-featured Excel-based vocabulary learning tool

Vocab BookI have written an Excel workbook to help university students, school pupils and the rest of us to organise, learn and test knowledge of vocabulary and phrases in sixteen languages. It sits alongside its sister workbooks Memorise It and Revision Aid (for more information about the suite of workbooks, see here).

 

Vocab Book screenshot 1

Here is the blurb:

Vocab Book is a powerful, fully-featured, Excel-based vocabulary organiser with six different built in tests including multiple choice, transcription of dictated phrases and pronunciation practice.
Train yourself in all four key areas of language acquisition: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

With Vocab Book you can improve your vocabulary, your listening skills and your pronunciation in sixteen different languages, safely archiving words and phrases as you get to know them so that your list contains only the items you have yet to learn.

You can keep track of all your new vocabulary and create your own Mp3 and paper-based vocab lists to test yourself when you are away from your computer.

Supported languages are Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Spanish and Ukranian.

Vocab Book screenshot 2

And here is a flavour of what Vocab Book can do…

Quick start guide:

Test from English into target language:

Test from target language into English:

Pronunciation test:

Test with spoken questions:

Multiple choice test:

Dictation test:

Create an Mp3 of your whole vocab book:

Produce a paper vocab book of your vocabulary list:

I offer Vocab Book “as is”. It has undergone a limited amount of beta testing (thank you Sarah Pasfield-Neofitou, Cathy Sell, Jessica Chakowa and Nadine Normand-Marconnet!) and should be relatively robust in windows 7, 8 and 10 environments running Excel 2010 onwards. For any other variations, no-one has told me how volatile Vocab Book is yet. Let me know!

You need to have Google’s Chrome browser installed to use many of the features of Vocab Book.

You can purchase Vocab Book securely through PayPal (it’s $5 Australian) by following this link. If you aren’t sure whether to take the plunge and spend a whole $5 on Vocab Book, you might want to download and try Vocab Book Lite, a limited version with only three built-in tests and no facility to create an Mp3 or printed book of your vocab list. You’ll also be reassured to know that I’m happy to provide a no quibbles 14-day refund to anyone who purchases Vocab Book only to find it doesn’t work on their machine.

It’s a project I’ve been working on in my spare time so I’m afraid I can’t provide technical support, but if you would like to offer any feedback (bugs, features you’d like to see…) do feel free to email me at christopher@christopherwatkin.com. I hope you find Vocab Book useful, and that you have half as much fun using it as I have had in getting the project to this point.

I’ve also written a memorisation tool called Memorise It, with a built in cloze test.