Social presence and bots

cog

One of the issues with MOOCs and just a whole mass of OER in general, is that if you have thousands of people looking at the materials, who’s going to help give you the individual steer through them that many learners need. Bots are one of the things that may help with this. Bots or companion agents, or AI tutors – they can be called any of these things (but NOT avatars, avatars are specifically online representations of humans, don’t get them mixed up) are standalone programs, which can be purely text-based, but are usually these days a head and shoulders or even a 3D representation (in which case they are embodied companion agents). In virtual worlds, they are indistinguishable from avatars, until you start to talk with them). Even then I’ve run workshops where one or more of the attendees have had long and increasingly frustrated conversations with a bot. There is a sort of intellectual arms race between humans and bots called the Turing test. The idea is that a person will try to work out by having a conversation whether something is human or computer driven (a process called turing, i.e. they ture, they are turing, they have tured – actually only i call it that, but I’m trying to get it taken up by everyone else and eventually adopted by the OED). Although the programs are getting better, people are getting better at turing, so the bar is rising faster than the programmers can match. At the moment.

In the work I’ve been doing with avatars, there’s a strong link between the affinity people feel with their avatar and their perception of how effective their learning is. In the project I’ve been doing with Ravensbourne College and Elzware, I started with the same hypothesis, if the learner feels more affinity with the bot that’s leading them through the content, will they experience their learning as more effective?

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We’re not at that stage yet, but in the first phases – since the ethos of the project is that it is a user-centred design – we began with a series of workshops to identify which of a series of bot designs the learners would feel a greater affinity towards, and why.

The students selected a bot design that was not anthropomorphic, though narrowly beating one that was. The reasons for this were various, but was down to three major reasons:

Bots that were realistic and too anthropomorphic were too creepy and too distracting.

Bots that were cartoony and too anthopomorphic weren’t creey but were still distracting.

Bots that were realistic but not anthropomorphic were just right.

Bots that were cartoony and not anthropormorphic were unengaging.

goop

“Realistic” in this sense, is a very specific usage, meaning engaging the breadth and/or depth of senses, and is the sense that people like Naimark and Steuer use it. So it could be 3D rendering, higher number of bits, more detail and so on. It also means behavioural realism, and it was this aspect, having a personality (and not necessarily a pleasant one) that students felt made the “realistic” but non-anthropomorphic the best tutors for them.

We still haven’t been able to put this to the test – the actual I in the AI is still being worked on, but we have hopefully put in place a design that will make the bot something the students want to learn from.

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Latest book published

Just heard on the grapevine (not from the publisher or anything helpful like that) that my latest book on virtual worlds Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds has just been published. https://www.interdisciplinarypress.net/online-store/digital-humanities/experiential-learning-in-virtual-worlds

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Looks good doesn’t it? It’s sort of a hybrid book, in that it’s largely a collection of chapters by a range of authors, edited by Greg Withnail and me (tempted to say Withnail and I, but that would be grammatically incorrect). I’ve got a few chapters in there though, the introduction, which is cannibalising a bit more of my PhD, a chapter I wrote with Anna Peachey on the various reasons why students hate Second Life (again adapted from my PhD) and finally a chapter on the various futures of virtual worlds, including a short description of a potential view of an augmented reality classroom. If you read that description, I’ve deliberately included something that’s almost impossible into the description as a sort of test to see which bit people will pick up on.

Although the book is £25, the introduction is downloadable for free. In the introduction, what I’ve tried to do is write it as a proper academic paper, covering a specific subject (in this case how notions of reality influence learning in virtual worlds), but focusing on the chapters in the book as my literature sources. With this the aim was to try and kill two birds with one stone … both introduce the chapters, but also provide something new to the debate. It was prompted by an argument between Greg and me about whether we should permit the authors to use the phrase “real world” to describe the physical world, my position being that this relegates virtual world activity to a secondary status, of not real when it can seem like that for a lot of people, and Greg pointing out that this is just not how people talk; for most people the physical world is the real world. In the end I went along with Greg and we just let the authors do their own thing, but wanted to raise this as an area that is problematic to some extent.

Most of the book chapters were actually relevant to this argument (the one or two that weren’t were more looking at the technology) and so it became an interesting task to pull together what the other authors had to say about how reality is perceived in a virtual world setting. I came to these conclusions:

  1. Presence and embodiment are key to effective experiential learning, but do not always occur.
  2. Immersion is fostered by the open navigable space of virtual worlds in balance with appropriate learning design. (which is covered in more depth in an upcoming book)
  3. To be effective for learning, not everything has to be perceived as real, but it is more effective if all participants agree on which parts are real and which are not. (Actually that probably applied to life in general, in the physical world too).
  4. In some cases, it is the non-real aspects that have value for learning. (in short, the people that complain that virtual worlds are not real are completely missing the point)

Anyway, take a look and see if you feel like shelling out for the whole thing.