‘It’s Almost like Talking to a Person’: Student Disclosure to Pedagogical Agents in Sensitive Settings

‘It’s Almost like Talking to a Person’: Student Disclosure to Pedagogical Agents in Sensitive Settings

Maggi Savin-Baden, Gemma Tombs, David Burden, Clare Wood
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/jmbl.2013040105
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This paper presents findings of a pilot study which used pedagogical agents to examine disclosure in educational settings. The study used responsive evaluation to explore how use of pedagogical agents might affect students’ truthfulness and disclosure by asking them to respond to a lifestyle choices survey delivered by a web-based pedagogical agent. Findings indicate that emotional connection with pedagogical agents was intrinsic to the user’s sense of trust and therefore likely to affect levels of truthfulness and engagement. The implications of this study are that truthfulness, personalisation and emotional engagement are all vital components in using pedagogical agents to enhance online learning.
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In many ways it would seem that emerging communication technologies are disrupting and changing societal norms and conventions (Turkle, 2011). Whitty and Joinson (2009) have suggested that central to making sense of the unique qualities of cyberspace are understandings of such social networks and veracity, and studies by Yee (2006) and Bailenson, Yee, Blascovich and Guadagno (2008) also indicate that issues of online and offline behaviour bear further exploration. We propose that as pedagogical agents are seen to help support and even improve the level of interactive learning on a programme or course (Kim & Wei, 2011), it is essential that these societal norms and behaviours are considered within pedagogical agent learning situations.

Pedagogical agents are characters on the computer screen with embodied life-like behaviours such as speech, emotions, locomotion, gestures, and movements of the head, the eye, or other parts of the body (Dehn & van Mulken, 2000). These technologies have been increasingly adopted and tested in educational settings, yet little is known about the ways in which they can be used effectively, and indeed whether they can provide additional value to learning experiences. Further, the research that has been undertaken has not yet drawn clear distinctions between application across disciplines and in difficult and sensitive settings (Heidig & Clarebout, 2011).

Such technologies seem likely to become a part of students’ daily lives outside of the educational arena. As consumer access to information has changed, the technology used to present chatbots (by our definition, commercial and business agents as opposed to pedagogical agents) to the user has reached a level where interacting with a pedagogical agent seems both normal and rewarding; this would seem to be important for a student’s ability to engage emotionally with a pedagogical agent. Recent advances in Flash and HTML-5 technology can be used to deliver dynamic and speaking chatbots1, offering a richer and more engaging experience than lines of text on a screen. Whereas early pedagogical agents were simple command line text interfaces, modern pedagogical agents are typically implemented as head-and-shoulders Flash or video animations, and often with the addition of text-to-speech functionality. Indeed pedagogical agents need not be limited to the web, and companies such as Daden have implemented pedagogical agents with IM services such as MSN2, as email and SMS responders, and even as full body avatars within virtual worlds such as Second Life. Further, the integration of web-services into pedagogical agents means that they can access live services to provide up-to-date information in their responses, and prevent the need to store all knowledge in the pedagogical agent. Thus whilst pedagogical agents are primarily utilised in blended contexts at present, as mobile technology becomes increasingly present in our daily lives, it is likely that these applications will transfer to mobile settings.

These technological advances offer new opportunities to implement pedagogical agent technology, when provided with pedagogical underpinning. McWilliam (2005) has argued that new possibilities for teaching and learning necessitate a rethinking of curriculum design, and that new technologies themselves cannot be relied upon to change anything. It would seem that the attention of many researchers has centred on the relationship between the pedagogy and the technology, whilst the attention of others has been focussed on the multiple perspectives that individuals bring to the learning encounter, based upon prior experience, knowledge, and the influence of culture and worldview (Gergen, 2003). As Dourish (2006) argues, the growth of mobility, mobile technology and information bring to the fore questions about practice and spatiality and whether technological practices are in fact spatial practices. In this sense, the application of pedagogical agents in mobile and blended settings do not raise technological questions but rather questions of if, and how, these technologies in new spaces alter how pedagogy might be seen. Perhaps what is being seen is what Thrift has termed ‘‘augmented existence’, in which it is not just tagging and integration of new technologies that affects our lives and practices but the recognition that the meta systems themselves become a new form of categorization (Thrift, 2006).

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