Sunday, February 06, 2011

Virtual Professors using Conversational Agent Software the Answer for the 3rd Dimension in Online Learning

"Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too..."

"...But even when lectures are accompanied with syllabuses, handouts, sample problem sets and other aids that Academic Earth has for some of its courses, is the experience really complete? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also shares the raw materials of courses in its OpenCourseWare program. For the benefit of autodidacts who aren’t M.I.T. students, it strives to publish materials online for every M.I.T. course. But students cannot interact and do not receive vital feedback about their own progress that an instructor or software provides."- Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension, Randall Stross, The New York Times

Way back in 1995, I became intrigued with developing conversational agents using software that was the descendant of "Eliza", software written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum between 1964 to 1966 to simulate a a Rogerian psychotherapist.  I wrote a script and adapted images of a bust of Julius Caesar to create an online "virtual" Julius Caesar that a web visitor could converse with and ask whatever they wanted to know about Caesar's life and times.

Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar in the National Ar...Image via Wikipedia
Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar in the National
Archaeological Museum of Naples.
I received e-mail from history teachers across the United States who actually started using my "virtual" Caesar in their classes and found it to be a dynamic learning tool that kept kids intrigued.

Then I tried to convince professors I worked with to consider letting me develop a "virtual" professor for each one to provide online office hours 24/7 for each of their courses. After all, professors, especially those that have taught the same class for years, obviously had a wealth of answers to course FAQs.  To make the agent more interesting, I explained to the professor that we needed to try to impart each professor's unique personality into the agent so conversing online with the agent would feel like talking with the real professor for the project to be a success.  For example, one professor enjoyed sea kayaking.  I told him that I would like him to talk about sea kayaking with me.  I also liked to include answers to questions about favorite books, movies, food, etc.

But, although I got a couple of professors intrigued, they were always too busy to spend the quality time that is needed to produce a truly convincing agent.  Maybe if institutions would consider paying instructors royalties for the use of their knowledge in the development of "virtual professors", more progress could be made in the production of such online learning environments.

 
Embodied Conversational Agents
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