Next Generation Assessment: Virtual Tutors & Personalized Learning

Online tutoring sites have been around for a while.  But recent advances are taking virtual tutors to a whole new level of sophistication: Imagine a virtual tutor with a computer generated face, a gender, a voice, and, most strikingly, one that responds to the emotional cues of the student   The New York Times recently reported on remarkable advances in affective computing – computers that monitor and respond to the emotional cues of the students.  Maggie Jones writes about her experience with a virtual tutor, named Isabel:

 On a summer afternoon, Isabel, a math tutor with long chestnut-colored hair and hoop earrings, sat in the lower-right corner of my computer screen as I wrestled with geometry problems. When I answered correctly, Isabel gave me a quick congratulatory smile. When I rushed, randomly guessing at perimeters of triangles and rectangles (geometry was never my favorite), Isabel, inferring from the speed of my keystrokes, wanted to know if I was bored. Was it because of the last problem? Did I want to choose the level of the next problem? “I think that more important than getting the answer right,” she said in words reminiscent of many a high-school teacher, “is putting in the effort and that we can all be good in math if we try.”  

This fall, hundreds of students will experience Isabel and her digital counterparts as part of an online tutoring program, Wayang Outpost. This program uses virtual tutors, or “affective pedagogical agents,” via a game-like interface to read students’ emotional cues, like boredom, frustration, anxiety and nervousness. The students are hooked up to sensors monitoring sweat, pressure placed on the mouse, and fidgeting. A small camera monitors facial expressions. This information is then used to cue the tutor’s responses, whether offering hints and explanation where needed or finding various ways to keep middle and high school students engaged.  Wayang Outpost is not just limited to student interaction; the program provides several teacher tools that allow classroom educators to create new classes, assign lessons for certain days, and see reporting on students’ progress. (more…)

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