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Using Virtual Assistant to Offer 24/7 Support for Online Learners in an Online Course

Scott Fredrickson (University of Nebraska at Kearney, USA)
Additional Authors
Phu Vu (University of Nebraska Kearney, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 10:15am
Student Services and Learner Support
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 5
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 6
Virtual Session

This presentation reports the use of a virtual assistant to provide 24/7 support to undergraduate students in an online course.

Extended Abstract

Online learning is increasingly popular in higher education since administrators view it as an effective method to increase enrollment with fairly low cost (Allen & Seaman, 2005; Kim & Bonk, 2006; Maguire, 2005; Vu & Fadde, 2014). However the lacks of interactions and timely support are considered as factors preventing the growth of online learning, especially in asynchronous learning. In asynchronous learning, the instructors and learners mainly interact with each other via emails and discussion boards. If a learner has questions and need a quick explanation to complete his or her assignment, s/he has to send an email to the instructor and wait for the answer. According to Clinefelter and Aslania (2014), 65% of online learners logged into their class during nigh time after work and/or weekend because most of them are employed while taking online courses. It will be a challenge for the instructors to respond to those students' emails or questions during weekend or mid night. Based on what has been reported in the literature and working experience, we created a virtual assistant that can offer 24/7 support to undergraduate students in an online course. This virtual assistant had a database about all course content including assignments and knowledge based on previous questions that students in the previous courses often had. She was trained to use very polite language and very course content-oriented, meaning that if a student asked an off-topic question, she would refer the student to contact the instructor. After one semester having the virtual assistant in one undergraduate course, our initial data yielded the following information.
1. The longest conversation the virtual assistant ever had was almost two hours.
2. She was very polite and patient even when some students used bad language to her.
3. Most of the interactions between her and students were during night time.
4. This semester, the instructor received less emails from students in this course than last semester.
We are conducting an open survey to ask students in this course about their attitude towards using this virtual assistant and will report the survey results in the conference.
The presentation will also give brief demonstration of how to create a virtual assistant and show how she really works in an online course. Implications and challenges of using a virtual assistant will also be discussed.

Lead Presenter