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Meet Helen, Your New Online Teacher


By Alex Kecskes

Stanley Kubrik's HAL 9000 may have been smart enough to run the spaceship Discovery, but HAL lacked one thing today's computers may soon have a face. Computers, long plagued by the impersonality of a box with speakers and programmer's graphics, will soon have a face and attitude compatible with their users.

A one-on-one teacher just for you

For simplicity's sake, we'll assign a name to our computer's new face and call her Helen (of course, you'll be able to name him/her anything you like). Helen will smile at you, move around, even make you laugh. She'll have an angelic voice, calming hand gestures and more expressions than Marcel Marceu. But most importantly, she'll encourage you to learn "everything and anything" from French to forensics.

Helen will have "soul"

Researchers in the areas of instructional technology, human-computer interaction and psychology have determined that computers can be more persuasive if they have a visual identity and "soul." Thus, they have designed what they call an effective "pedagogical agent," an animated, three- dimensional character that serves as the "face" (and "interface") of the computer, one that can mimic human emotional expressions, nonverbal communication and interactions.

You'll want to bring her an apple

Helen will be the perfect teacher. She'll interact with you, adapt to your strengths and weaknesses, even provide emotional and cognitive feedback. Far better than Microsoft Word's annoying and intrusive paperclip 'Clippy,' Helen will engage you and help you focus on the task at hand. And unlike a human mentor, Helen's age, ethnicity, personality, mannerisms, and interactive style will be matched to your preferences to encourage learning. In short, you'll have that "favorite teacher" who got you through math or chemistry.

She'll do everything but send you to detention

Helen will evaluate your understanding throughout your "e-class," just like a human teacher, and she'll adapt the lesson plan accordingly. She won't move on to more sophisticated concepts until it's clear you've grasped the basics. If you don't, she'll continue with the basics until you "get it." And if that means prompting you to ask questions, she'll do that too, offering encouragement, memorable examples, even a clever joke or two to keep you interested. You'll get to know Helen much like you would a really interesting teacher. She'll have a colorful personality, reveal her life history and specific areas of knowledge and skills--in short, she'll be really cool. Best of all, she'll always be up to date on the subject at hand, tirelessly absorbing the latest research or historic tomes on the subject being taught.

Helen won't make you stand in the corner

Helen will let you learn at your own pace in a low-pressure learning environment. She'll project enthusiasm and support when you get the right answer; yet, unlike a real classroom filled with peers, you won't be embarrassed if you fail to grasp a concept or answer incorrectly. Finally, teachers like Helen can be set up to act as coaches or disciplined instructors--teaching everything from the history of art to advanced calculus.

So prepare yourself for the brave new world of computer learning. Your favorite teacher will make sure you get an A in class and an E for effort. And yes, you can chew gum in class, as long as you give Helen your due attention.

About the Author: Alex Kecskes is a former ad agency Copy Chief who has created effective copy and concepts for a wide range of ad agencies, Fortune 500 companies and startups.

 
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