Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Teacher Avatars

I came across an interesting website recently: http://www.intellitar.com/chemteach.php which is the site for Intellitar, a company in Alabama that is attempting to commercialize artificial intelligence (AI) combining it with the creation of avatars that interact with you over the web.  Part of the site talks about creating "virtual eternity" in which you create an avatar of yourself that will presumably survive you and allow future generations to have a conversation with you.  The avatar looks like you and sounds like you and is given a dossier of information about you that it uses to answer questions. 

The other part of the site has begun to explore the educational uses of the technology.  In one area students can talk to Benjamin Franklin and ask him questions about his life or the founding of the United States.  In another area, a science teacher avatar allows students to ask questions about chemistry assignments.  I found the Ben Franklin images a little hokey and couldn't get the demo to answer any questions.  The science teacher was better but still not there yet.  As a test I asked the science teacher for the chemical formula for water.  Her reply: "H twenty" not H-Two-Oh. 

The interesting thing is that the AI learns from you as it interacts and so gets better over time.  If you saw the quiz show: "Jeopardy" recently you would have seen the self contained computer "Watson" defeat the two all time Jeopardy champs.  Watson is the same sort of learning computer, but apparently far more sophisticated than the Intellitars.  Having said that, it is important to note that this is the start of this technology and it is likely to get better and progress rapidly.

What are the implications of this technology on spaces that house education?  I think they are another example of the trend toward on-line education.  It will be a while before these avatars are good enough that they are not a novelty, but once they do get better they will offer students another choice in how they learn. When students have a choice, what will make them want to come to a school rather than learn in environments of their choosing?  Schools too often have too many rules, uncomfortable furniture, lousy ventilation, no natural light, and no access to food and water.  Schools are a place to meet and be with your friends, but in the future why would you choose a school as a place to socialize when you can socialize and learn in places that are more comfortable and convenient for you while you learn on-line?

For schools to successfully compete for students, which I believe they will need to do in the future, we have to design schools that are compelling places to be and learn, not just places to minimally house learning activities.  Students, who for the first time ever will have choices about where they learn, will need to choose to come to school rather than have their learning elsewhere.  Student centered teaching and curriculum will of course be key, but as more and more of the teaching/learning transaction occurs on-line the environment might just be the difference maker that keeps schools relevant to tomorrow's learners.