Robots and avatars – teachers and trainers of the future?

| September 21, 2010

The idea of using robots as ‘test teachers’ isn’t exactly new, and the machines in question have thus far only been able to execute basic imitative movements.

But more sophisticated models have recently left the assembly line. They operate via artificial intelligence software, and have been designed as possible language instructors. RUBI is one such ‘new age’ entity, designed by researchers in social robotics and currently teaching Finnish to pre-schoolers in San Diego with great success. Equally successful are Asimo, a product of research conducted at Honda Labs in Mountain View, California; Morphy, developed at the University of Washington; and Nao, a French robot in use at the University of Connecticut. Between them, they’re helping scientists understand ‘gaze following’, an essential first step of social exchange. This, says psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, is how and where learning begins. The next step is to make robots as convincingly ‘real’ as possible.

Over at the University of Florida, it’s the students who aren’t strictly human. They’re avatars, designed to reform teacher training techniques. Components of an interdisciplinary research project called TeachME that brought the Engineering and Theatre Studies departments together, the other-worldly students inhabit a virtual classroom. The idea is for trainee educators to ‘teach’ to a screen depicting two rows of student avatars, controlled by ‘interactors’. The avatars are, in reality,
acting students, ‘prepped’ to behave as one of the four types cognitive psychologists use to classify personalities. During training sessions, they’re in the campus Media Convergence Lab, able to view and hear the teacher-in-training via Skype. A puppeteer controls extra ‘effects’ like whispering.

While there are still wrinkles to iron out, TeachME project organisers believe they’ve created an ideal environment in which teachers-in-training can make mistakes and gain valuable experience.

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Category: e-Education, Spring 2010 Edition

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