In 2012, Alelo partnered with the Commonwealth of Virginia to develop and test virtual role-play learning products for conversational practice in Chinese.
Tammy McGraw, the former director of digital innovations and outreach at the Virginia Department of Education, had met Johnson at a Wired conference years earlier and, although Alelo was demonstrating cyberlearning technologies for soldiers, McGraw was struck by how the virtual characters were able to impart both linguistic and cultural lessons.
Moreover, the software could address the shortage of qualified teachers able to teach Chinese, Arabic and other less popular languages, while allowing the state to increase the number of students who were able to take classes that were over-enrolled.
The first Web-based course was tested last year via Virtual Virginia, a statewide virtual school program and received overwhelmingly positive ratings from the students.
“The virtual classes enabled students to be more self-directed than teachers could normally support,” McGraw said.
Recently, McGraw and Johnson have been adapting the insights learned in virtual role-playing research for a new platform: a robo-tutor.
With support from NSF, Alelo has taken RoboKind’s lifelike social robot and equipped it with the ability to converse in Chinese. The technology gives learners abundant opportunities to practice their conversational skills and lowers the entry barrier for difficult languages such as Chinese.
“It’s non-threatening,” McGraw said. “The robot is not going to be offended if you say the wrong thing. He’s not going to laugh at you if you pronounce Chinese incorrectly. But he also has the ability to engage learners through active interaction.”
Though still in the prototype phase, they imagine RoboKind could be used in the classroom, with kids coming up to engage with it at will. It could also be used outside of formal class as a personal tutor. Teachers at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., signed on to try out the computer-based pilot.
By combining artificial intelligence and robotics with insights from virtual role-playing research, Alelo is pioneering new avenues of personalized education.
“The question we’re trying to answer is: what are the aspects of the technology that are most important for mastering communicative skills?” McGraw said.
“We have two different realizations of virtual role-play technology. They have different strengths, different weaknesses. What are they going to be good for? Which is good for what? Doing this research, we hope to get some answers to those questions.”
This article was republished in its entirety with the permission of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense-“