The current generation of students understands that we are still within the Wild West era of online education; a Daedulus-like “sea change” characterized by increased anonymity and — for learning introverts –- concomitant freedom from the discomfiture of real-world human interaction.
There’s more patience and forgiveness in this brave new virtual world, notes Dennis McGuire, an e-learning specialist at CodeBaby, a privately held Colorado Springs software development concern. “Students and humans inherently don’t like to expose their ignorance to other humans right out of the gate,” McGuire explained to me in a recent interview. “They’re often not in a comfortable environment, whereas they will ask questions to a virtual assistant that they otherwise wouldn’t ask to some human on the phone or to a teacher in a classroom.”
CodeBaby creates such “intelligent virtual assistants” –- known generically as avatars –- to interact naturally with humans online, whether to guide them through a website or application or help them troubleshoot a topic raised in class.
Moreover, CodeBaby’s suite of standardized avatars can be customized with unique emotional, physical, and intellectual attributes, including “face wraps” that can make the avatar resemble real flesh-and-blood instructors. However, the avatars are consciously designed without too much versimilitude, as internal studies by CodeBaby reveal that avatars with exagerrated human attributes, such as extra large eyes, improve user engagement, while an exact human replica is off-putting.
CodeBaby avatars work much like virtual companions in a video game environment. CareFirst, for instance, has CodeBaby avatars deployed on its website to hand-hold customers through the health insurance buying process. Given the PTSD that many consumers have experienced navigating healthcare.gov, receiving any kind of assistance with health insurance purchasing is certainly welcome, even if such virtual assistants, like CareFirst’s Chloe, may seem, at first blush, a bit off-putting to some.
“We have a lot of different tools we implement that guides the conversation, so the student or consumer is telling you what they want to learn about specifically,” McGuire explained. “Now, with all that being said, at some point they are going to ask a question that we don’t have listed, and there are natural language tools that let the consumer type in what they’re asking and it will serve up from a database the best answer to that question.”
While these pre-scripted answers may not be exactly what a consumer is looking for, avatars are, nevertheless, probably the closest thing to having a teacher or personal guide without actually submitting a question to a human. And, according to a few case studies, many users find them helpful.
For instance, CodeBaby was hired by Pikes Peak Community College in 2010 to revamp their online admissions process, deploying an avatar — named Addy — to guide students through enrollment, answer any questions and even offer advice about their application. According to a CodeBaby spokesperson, Addy allegedly brought a 54% spike in completed applications and a 78% decrease in errors found on applications.
While CodeBaby’s avatars are currently used more on the corporate training end of the education spectrum, the demand for virtual teaching assistants is growing. Take Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have achieved widespread recognition at the college level, since my Forbes post on the phenomenon broke in 2011. Now, multi-district fully online schools are taking off at the K-12 level too. According to a report published by Evergreen Education Group entitled, “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online and Blended Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice,” across 29 states more than 310,000 students were enrolled in courses taught through fully-online school districts in 2013.
MOOCs and online schools have not fully thrown the student-teacher ratio out the window, but they seem to be heading in that direction. As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.
“We’ve had some discussions with CEC, a big private education company in Chicago,” continued McGuire. “We’ve done some things with community colleges, but it’s more in the enrollment space, where students have a lot of problems accurately completing applications and providing the appropriate date, but we haven’t done coursework.”
McGuire envisions a time when a student might be guided through a problem online by a virtual teacher. Though K-12 education budgets don’t typically support the kind of in-depth curricular help that CodeBaby delivers, teaching avatars used in online classes do seem to be on the horizon.
A Vanderbilt University software lab is in the roll-out stages of a learning tool called Betty’s Brain, wherein Betty, an avatar, “learns” about climate change from 5th and 6th grade students, forcing them to engage thoughtfully and creatively with difficult material.
The TeachME (Teaching in Mixed-reality Environments) program, under development at the University of Central Florida’s Synthetic Reality Lab, is already developing avatars to help with teacher training. But, in this case, it’s the students who’ve been digitized.
In the Synthetic Reality Lab’s simulated classroom, a new teacher can interact with five or six students of mixed (and highly customizable) gender, race and ethnicity. Throughout the simulation, the teacher can interact with the avatars naturally, and in turn the avatars throw the teacher any number of pre-programmed curveballs that the teacher must learn to quickly and adroitly handle.
The case for simulated classroom teacher training rests on lowering the hazards involved in new-teacher training. Inexperience in a classroom can result in lack of control –- I can speak from experience, as my documentary, Crotty’s Kids, makes clear — which ultimately degrades the quality of a student’s learning environment. In the TeachME simulation, a teacher can become derailed without putting the learning experience of a real-life classroom at risk.
Not everyone is behind the rollout of teacher avatars, though. A recent conversation by online think-tank eLearning Development concluded that Noah, a cartoonized, shapeshifting online helper, was ultimately more of a nuisance than an assistant. In this regard, Noah was like Clippy, the Microsoft Office paperclip pariah who fell out of favor in the late 1990s.
Education blogger Cathy Moore wrote in an excellent review of avatars in education that the relationship between a student and an avatar seems to be largely one-way.
“Noah can’t take questions, at least not in the sample provided. Most avatars I’ve seen don’t answer questions,” wrote Moore. “I’m a big fan of learner control. Noah doesn’t seem to be so keen on the idea.”
Nevertheless, virtual assistants have already made waves with mobile technology. According to a Vision Mobile report on virtual assistants in mobile phones, downloads of virtual assistant apps (ala Apple’s Siri) totaled 133 million in 2011 alone. Analyst firm Gartner predicted that by the end of 2014, at least 15 percent of Fortune 1000 companies would deploy virtual assistants for online training.
“The default and automatic assumption people make about mediated characters is that they are real,” wrote Stanford researcher Bryan Reeves in a study entitled The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters. “Everyone understands that computer-generated characters are not real people; however, characters can still cause automatic social responses as if the characters were real.”
So, while avatars can’t yet replicate a wholly authentic classroom experience, they do add an element of realism, trust and social interaction that makes the online space potentially more nurturing for students. With “40% of High School Students Chronically Disengaged From School” (as I noted in my Forbes post of that name), surely a virtual assistant that improves the emotional desire to learn can’t be a bad thing, can it?
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– You can follow James Marshall Crotty on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. To learn about his other works, including his two documentaries on urban education — Crotty’s Kids and Master Debaters — please visit www.JamesCrotty.com.