NPR Pittsburgh: AI Software Helps High School Students Foster Productive Discourse

By Jacob Paul

October 2, 2020

Allelo featured on Pittsburgh’s NPR News Station

By Jacob Paul

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Political discourse is widespread on the internet, but online debates aren’t always productive. A group of Carnegie Mellon University students are using artificial intelligence to teach high schoolers how to have productive conversations online.

They’ve created a platform called Convertsation and tailored it for classroom use. Teachers can split students into discussion groups and assign a topic, like gun control. The discussions take place in a chatroom that resembles a typical messaging service, but it has a few key features. A research bar enables students to reference and share relevant articles and a word limit prevents one voice from dominating the conversation. And when students start to type a response, the software suggests how to phrase it.

Students can choose between three suggested responses, which include; “You make a valid point about…”; “I understand why you think that…”; and “The way I understand your position is…”

Convertsation founder, Daniel Hack, said that these phrases can encourage everyone contribute. “If I say something like that, it’s a lot more likely that the person that I’m having a conversation with is going to respond in a constructive manner.”

Hack and his team plan to implement a responsive AI software that will make suggestions as students type. But students don’t have to use any of the suggestions if they don’t want to.

Convertsation is currently beta testing in five different classrooms. Jessica Minick, a teacher at New York’s Suffern High School, has been used Convertsation for homework assignments.

Minick is using Convertsation in a course called Global Perspectives and Research, which is offered through Cambridge Assessment International Education. Minick adapted the class to address divisive trends in discourse by encouraging students to explore all the perspectives on contentious issues. She has assigned a range of topics for discussions, including universal health care and freedom of speech on university campuses, and says that Convertsation is a great tool to practice these skills.

Though her students were familiar with Convertsation’s goals before using it, she feels confident that it can teach people with less experience. Minick has found the suggestion feature “to be effective in teaching or introducing students to kind of those phrases that they might not be aware of or have as part of their habit.”

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