“Know-bots” will be students’ best friends at Canadian University

Rather than studying alone – with just text books and PowerPoint slides to help them – students in some of Canada’s most remote regions will soon enjoy a more hands-on, interactive learning experience.

Taking its cue from Second Life’s virtual success, Alberta’s Athabasca University – that delivers distance education to students across the world – will be adding a new “interactive” dimension to its distance education programs

The initiative will foster greater student engagement through specialized subject-based networking groups and avatars that interact with students during a coffee break.

The idea is to transform a distance-education-only facility to a leader in e-learning through immersive education.

“It’s our mandate to provide education to people in remote, isolated regions of the country,” said Rory McGreal, associate vice-president of research at Athabasca University.

He said the initiative would benefit students in the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Nunavut, Northern Quebec and Northern Ontario – some of the most isolated regions of Canada. “We feel anything that helps them learn better is a good thing.”

Sun Microsystems of Canada is teaming up with Athabasca, the online-only institution, to build Canada’s first research centre focused on immersive technology.

The Centre will be built on the game server Project Darkstar and Sun’s Project Wonderland – an open source program that allows companies to create a virtual private world.

This  3D world is similar to Second Life, and will help students at Athabasca feel like they’re part of a physical university community.

See related story and video: Second Life opens new world of opportunity to Ontario students

By recording and examining actions of the students’ avatars, Athabasca, in effect, will be researching virtual ethnography – the study of how people work together and behave in a virtual environment.

This information will then be used to improve lesson plans and create customized tutoring for each student.

Tutors will come in the form of automated avatars called ‘know-bots’ which are pre-programmed to learn how individual students retain information and automatically adjust its teaching methods for each student, based on behavioral data, McGreal said.

“The know-bots are artificial helpers that learn from you and guide you along your learning path,” he said.

Students will answer a survey on learning habits when they first register and the ‘know-bot’ will also monitor your behaviour to uncover your study habits and determine if they are helping you absorb the course content.

An example of a know-bot prototype is the “Freud-bot”, for students in the psychology department. This miniature caricature of Sigmund Freud will pop up in the virtual world and answer students’ questions.

The know-bots are intended to fill in gaps in each student’s learning experience, and provide direct, one-on-one help to struggling students.

“In the old days distance education was mass-produced,” McGreal noted. “Today, the Internet is providing a more personalized learning experience for distance students.”

But he said the school is moving away from an avatar-only-based learning environment. Instead, he hopes to develop a wider range of experience-based programs.

For instance, in this immersive environment, astronomy students studying life on Mars, may virtually “travel to Mars” to observe the characteristics of life on the planet.

Psychology programs too would be experience-based, using avatars to conduct experiments and observe patients.

Games and simulations will also be used to provide a immersive experience.

The U.S. military has been using games for simulation-based learning for years, and research has shown that simulators are engaging, cost-efficient training tools, he said.

See related story: “Serious” video games liven up learning for Canadians

Students in Athabasca’s science department will participate in simulated experiments, gaining practice before actually entering a physical lab.

Professors will conduct students through environments that simulate the subject of their study, such as into a cell or outer space.

There will also be a social networking component, which will allow students to chat informally with colleagues in the same program and join subject-based groups, said Kevin Roebuck, community manager for immersive technologies at Sun’s global education and research group.

“When studying Second Life, we discovered people are very social and spontaneous online,” Roebuck said. “Most collaboration happens while walking around the virtual world, during back channel conversations, at a coffee break and before or after class begins.”

Users can also build unique applications for Wonderland and use Open Office inside the program to share presentations, spreadsheets and documents.

Use of open-source software in Project Wonderland will enable Athabasca University to share programs and research with other academic institutes.

Athabasca will be granted access to the Sun Immersion Special Interest Group, a community that seeks to advance open-source technology for virtual worlds, games and new media in education.

Project Wonderland is currently being used by 145 universities across the globe, with a number of research pilot projects already underway.

St. Paul’s College at the University of Missouri-Columbia is using the toolkit to examine how students with autism learn. And the University of Rome is using Wonderland to study learning with sensor technology.

The University of Zurich in Switzerland has recently created new applications for annotating lecture notes and for making business cards.

Online learning grew 18 per cent last year and is expected to become more popular this year, as the global recession continues, Roebuck said.

There are also huge demands for online English language training from students in the developing world.

Low barriers to entry, low cost and demand for online education are expected to boost demand for online learning.  

As every student learns differently, not all of Athabasca’s programs will be placed in the virtual world. “We’re against putting all of our courses online, because that doesn’t appeal to all our students,” McGreal said.

He said the computer science department would begin using the virtual world next Fall.

But courses for the rest of the university would be held in the real world, for a year or two longer, until all of the applications and research is developed.

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