Animated Pedagogical Agents and Immersive Worlds: Two Worlds Colliding – Chapter 16

January 15, 2011

Bob Heller and Mike Procter’s chapter “Animated Pedagogical Agents and Immersive Worlds: Two Worlds Colliding” (Chapter 16) is the final chapter in the Veletsianos (ed.) book, and after a lengthy gap in blogging which I will partially explain, I am now happy to write about it and consider how it looks forward and expands ideas about possibilities in distance education through the use, including the combined use, of
1. animated pedagogical agents (APAs) which are responsive computer generated characters with special abilities to communicate and
2. immersive worlds, such as Second Life, in which human-controlled avatar personas interact with each other.

First, I will describe my own recent experience with an immersive world introduced to me by my eighteen-year-old son who had been watching me play “Boggle™” on a first generation i-Pod touch in an attempt to distract myself from the side-effects of some medical interventions that were part of my life this past November-December and were the reason my blogging disappeared.

Moms and eighteen-year-olds don’t always communicate fully in verbal ways, so when he showed me how to sign up for a trial version of ‘World of Warcraft’ which I could play from my laptop, I believed (although he didn’t really say so) that his intention was to find an engaging “escape” for me. What I discovered is that getting me into the game was probably also an opportunity for him to deal with and express his own concerns about my situation. At the time I couldn’t focus for more than half an hour or so, and the game is hard work so I was constantly in trouble with it. Although there wasn’t much my son or anyone else could do to make me feel better at that time in real life (thank goodness that is all behind me now), when he disappeared to his own computer and arrived a few moments later at my virtual side, literally riding on a white steed, I knew that help, and perhaps something more, was at hand. Marge Simpson aside (see World of Warcraft is not a place where most moms expect to spend much time (and truly, I found it was not the right place for me), but to gain an insight into my son’s intentions in this way, even briefly, was, well, amazing. And, it definitely provided a very real example of how communication and motivation can function in these environments – a major topic discussed in the Heller/Procter chapter and something that I hadn’t found much of in my limited journeys into Second Life.

An important idea expressed in the chapter is to use APAs and immersive technologies in ways that don’t just replicate “old learning”. Simulations, coaching, virtual historians based on real historical figures, and learning by teaching are some of the strategies described. And there is potential for immersive environments like “Second Life” to combine with fully interactional actor-agents incorporating artificial intelligence. These agents could be able, for instance, to simulate a medical patient and allow students to practice their clinical interviewing skills, all in an immersive environment that would allow the students to participate as avatars. As the chapter authors state, what needs to be explored now is not “do they work?” but rather “when do they work and in what context?” (p. 314).

This is from the “Elizabeth Tweets” series of chapter-by-chapter blog posts related to the new book “Emerging Technologies in Distance Education“, edited by George Veletsianos and published by Athabasca University Press (including a freely available e-book version).