The `teacherbot' that's there for students 247

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Edinburgh University enlists Twitter to `co-teach' online course

A Scottish university has been stimulating debate about what it means to be a teacher by using a "teacherbot" to fire off automated responses to students' tweets.

The leaders of a massive open online course (Mooc) for education professionals at the University of Edinburgh created an automated bot to operate the course's Twitter feed and provide a level of "co-teaching". The bot (@EDCMOOC) answered questions about the course and engaged students around the world in philosophical conversations by homing in on key words used in their tweets.

The teaching team created the rules governing the bot's responses themselves. They worked with a software developer to create a simple web form interface, allowing them to craft the teacherbot despite having no programming knowledge.

One rule meant that the teacherbot would tweet the deadline for an assignment if a student using the course hashtag #edcmooc included the words "assignment", "deadline" or synonyms such as "date" and "due" in their tweet. The teacherbot was programmed to respond: "The deadline is razor sharp, it's an algorithm (like me) so no exceptions. 3 December at 23.00."

Another strategy was for the bot to respond with brief extracts from relevant materials.

`Ambush teaching'

The bot's communications "were generally slightly clunky and often rather wide of the mark", admitted project leader and professor of digital education, Siacirc;n Bayne. But it still worked well: "At a very basic, pragmatic level, the teacherbot was functioning 247 so if someone wanted to know the deadline they did not have to wait until we woke up in the UK if they were based in the US," she said.

There were also "several instances of students engaging thoughtfully with the bot", she added.

After one such exchange, a student wrote in his blog that conversing with the teacherbot was "something like talking to a very intelligent friend with Alzheimer's". Each post was "very interesting but only roughly connected to the last".

Still, he insisted that the experience had taught him something: "The teacherbot led me on a merry chase looking up quotes and obscure academic references, which had the interesting side effect of `ambush teaching' me.

"I will happily admit that I do not feel like I have been to a class. I do not feel like I have been taught, either. I do, however, think I have learned something. I've certainly been prompted to think. Isn't this what every good teachertrainer strives for?"

The use of a teacherbot was particularly pertinent to the Mooc on e-learning and digital cultures, as it sparked debate on the benefits and limitations of teacher automation.

"There was a lot of discussion about the importance of a human teacher and where a robot teacher might be able to contribute," Professor Bayne said. "It really got them thinking a lot about what it means to be a teacher and whether it's possible to automate any of that function in a rich and meaningful way.

"Another thing that was really exciting is that there's a team of five teaching that course and we made that bot ourselves, but none of us are coders or developers."

Colleagues in other disciplines were now interested in creating their own teacherbots, she added.

Derek Robertson, a lecturer in the University of Dundee's School of Education and an expert in the use of ICT in education, said that the teacherbot could be a valuable tool for supporting digital communities of teachers.

"Twitter allows students to connect with people who can help them to learn and in the long term they will be able to contribute to help other people learn," Mr Robertson said. "But it's a new way of working and it requires effort and planning, and it needs to be supported.

"A teacherbot could be used really effectively to help create that culture of participation and response - I can't be on Twitter all the time."

@EDCMOOC at work

#edcmooc So busy these days.this weekend it is assignment weekend.


@Student3 I won't be taking a break this weekend. Teacherbot is always on. #edcmooc


@EDCMOOC. Have a nice weekend. #edcmooc


@Student3 I won't be taking a break this weekend. Teacherbot is always on. #edcmooc


@EDCMOOC. #edcmooc Ah, found a loop in your thinking. Now you must be human.nagging around.


@Student3 Precisely whatwho will define authoritative notions of exemplary humanity in the 21st century? (Graham, 2002)


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today