Thousands of Quebec students going back to school with virtual assistants

A virtual chat program built to answer questions about academic life is also asking how studying is going, giving study tips, and even dealing with personal issues related to bullying and isolation.

Company says program could be frontline contact for students experiencing personal or academic difficulties

Vigo is an artificial intelligence program designed to help students in elementary and high school deal with academic and personal difficulties. (Submitted by Philippe Dicaire)

Thousands of students from across the province can get help from a virtual buddy this year — to help them deal with everything from learning challenges to bullying — thanks to a new artificial intelligence interface developed in Chicoutimi.

Vigo is an AI chat program integrated into school web portals and developed by the tech company Optania.

It was built to answer student questions about academic life, ask how studying is going, give study tips, and even deal with personal issues related to bullying and isolation.

"It's all about timing," said Philippe Dicaire, vice president of sales and marketing at Optania.

"Because the teacher can't have a complete version of the student profile in real time at the moment that each student needs feedback, that's when Vigo comes into action."

Vigo also learns and evolves with the students to become increasingly personalized for each student's needs.

Dicaire said Vigo provides a no-judgment zone for the 20,000 students it serves, because it's a robot.

"It's a lot of interaction, and the more time goes by, the more Vigo will get to know the student and be able to accompany [them] throughout [their] journey," he said.

The program works in French and English using a combination of artificial intelligence and natural language understanding.

"It's pretty much constructive dialogue with the students," Dicaire said.

Teachers and parents do not have access to student conversations with Vigo, but the AI component can analyze interactions so teachers can monitor students who may have particular issues, and can do so with every student at once.

"Vigo is literally there as a first line of access because he is there to start the process and break isolation," Dicaire said. "He is also there to demystify the help that is available."

If a student shows signs of personal struggles or academic difficulties, the computer can begin a communication process between the student and trained professionals, with the student's consent.

Dicaire said students need to have full confidence in chatting with Vigo, so everything will remain confidential.

The technology has been more than a decade in the making.

Dicaire said it is up to parents and teachers to find a balance between giving kids access to Vigo and limiting screen time.

"It's an intricate and tricky question," Dicaire said. "The people who are using it are definitely grasping the benefits."

Vigo was deployed in the spring and is now accessible for about 20,000 students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Dicaire said there are plans to adapt the technology for Cégep students with more of a focus on stress and anxiety management.

With files from CBC Radio's Breakaway


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