Virtual Teachers Outperform Real Thing

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BOSTON — Never let schooling get in the way of your education, Mark Twain supposedly said, and the latest advances in psychology and behavior science take that to a new dimension — virtual reality and the digital domain.

Virtual characters and digital tutors are helping children and adults develop advanced social and language skills that can be tough to learn via conventional approaches, according to researchers who briefed reporters here last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Justine Cassell of Northwestern University has found that children with autism can develop advanced social skills by interacting with a "virtual child" that they might not develop by hanging out with real children or teachers. Cassell is credited with developing the Embodied Conversational Agent (ECA), a virtual human capable of interacting with humans using language and gestures.

Her "virtual child" is a cartoon about the size of an 8-year-old with whom kids can learn and play on the floor with toys via a plasma screen projection. The cartoon looks like a boy to boys and like a girl to girl, and is racially ambiguous, so no one feels left out.

The language skills of children who played with the virtual child improved and their social-interaction skills improved, Cassell's research shows. "They played nicer," doing better at taking turns, she said.

The virtual child has been tested and found to be an effective way to teach autistic children the ability to stay on topic in conversations, take turns at talk and nod when spoken to, she said.

'Baldi' teaches language

Along similar lines, Dominic W. Massaro of the University of California, Santa Cruz, has developed software that presents 3-D animated "tutors" or talking heads that are useful in teaching remedial readers, children with language challenges and anyone learning a second language. His teachers are less cartoonish than Cassell's, and the focus is on speech accuracy.

One of the tutors (or embodied agents) developed by Massaro, "Baldi," has been used at the Defense Language Institute in California to teach foreign languages to Americans doing military and other work in Iraq. A handful of public schools in California and Florida have adopted the software to help children learn skills, he said.

Baldi can be programmed to enhance "error-free learning" such that the tutor doesn't say, "That's wrong," when students make mistakes, but instead offers informative feedback that helps students see their error and do better with their next chance to answer a question.

"Working with Baldi can be less intimidating because students don't feel shy about making mistakes," said Massaro, whose Animated Speech Corporation also has produced software with digital tutors that is used to teach vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and speech articulation to children who are hard-of-hearing.

Baldi also features a realistic view of the inside of the mouth complete with tongue, teeth and palate, that play little movies for students to watch on iPods and other mp3 players in various cutaways and angles to help them learn how to form new sounds in such languages as English, Chinese and Arabic. The videos are based on ultrasound images of speaking mouths and "electropalatography" sensors placed along the palate that are used to create 3-D real-time data.

The goal is to realistically mimic the natural processes of speech observed by Massaro and others in experiments.

Being digital, Baldi is tireless compared to human teachers who get worn out from children's ongoing requests for attention. And Baldi is available 24/7, which is great especially for autistic kids who sometimes keep unconventional sleeping hours.

Toning it down

Digital teachers are better teachers than humans along some dimensions, says Jeremy Bailenson, a communications researcher at Stanford University, who has conducted numerous experiments demonstrating the benefits that virtual environments have over reality.

He has worked with Cassell in the past, though not on autistics nor on the research presented here.

"I think the best aspect of virtual reality (VR) for this application is the ability to build virtual humans that can 'scale' in the amount of socialness they exude," Bailenson told LiveScience. VR allows participants to send only small amounts of non-verbal or facial expressions to the other person with whom they are communicating, which benefits autistics who often cannot deal with the intensity of face-to-face conversations. Speakers can create renderings of themselves that are toned down or abstract.

"In this sense, communicating in real-time via avatars may be the best way for [autistics] to be social and learn these skills," Bailenson said.

Embodied teaching agents are helpful to specialists who work with autistic students, allowing teachers to match the expressiveness level of the student.

"By detecting the gestures of the student in real-time and then rendering a similar degree of socialness on the embodied agent, virtual humans may be particularly comforting as teachers for students," Bailenson said.

Despite the efficacy of digital approaches to education, there is a reluctance in society for such tools to become widespread, a discomfort with the idea that human teachers might be replaced by virtual teachers on a widescale basis, Cassell said.

"I believe that the reason that virtual reality and other interventions like this scare us is … because we are scared that we don't have the time to interact with our children the way that we'd like to," she said.

Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.