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Next for education: Teacher avatars

Chemistry teacher Brenda Remus is developing her intelligent avatar.

Hoping to brush up on colonial history, a student looks at a computer screen where a smiling, blinking Benjamin Franklin gazes back. The student types a simple question. “Of course, I signed the Declaration of Independence along with the other forefathers of our country,” Franklin replies.

But this isn’t a scene reminiscent of a Harry Potter movie, complete with moving figures in books and paintings. In fact, it’s a very real technology, in which companies develop intelligent avatars. The avatars look almost exactly like their human counterparts, and the avatar’s knowledge base comprises information from a person’s life and other relevant alternate sources.

Ben Franklin’s avatar is a creation of Intellitar, a Huntsville, Ala., technology firm working to digitally clone educators and knowledge sources to make them more accessible to students at any time, from any place.

An artificial intelligence (AI) engine captures thoughts, experiences, ideas, and personality traits of the person who is being cloned. Intellitar complements the avatars with “alternate knowledge sources” to fill in gaps.

Intellitar has identified a number of potential applications for the avatars, but education, online instruction, and online training have been top focuses.

To populate an educator’s avatar with knowledge, Don Davidson, Intellitar co-founder and CEO, said a common starting point might be a digital curriculum that would serve as an alternate knowledge source. The educator would provide personal experiences as they relate to the subject matter or views on certain topics.

“It’s a combination of their personalization of their brain, so to speak, and the digital content that’s provided as part of the curriculum,” Davidson said.

In fact, Intellitar is working on a project with an unnamed private school, a services company, and a curriculum company to build an educational curriculum platform based on an intelligent avatar as an instructor.

The company already has one educator in the virtual world: Brenda Remus, a chemistry teacher at Sparkman High School in Alabama, is in the middle of developing her intelligent avatar. Remus’s husband, Walter Remus, is an Intellitar co-founder and serves as the company’s chief technology officer.

So far, Remus has developed a “script” that focuses on one lesson plan and includes her responses to students if they give a correct answer, as well as her responses if students answer questions incorrectly.

Remus said she hopes to develop 10 lesson topics over the summer, which she said would come in handy if students are absent or miss important explanations in class. After she has a chance to use it with her students, she’ll adjust her avatar’s knowledge based with student input in mind.

“I’m excited about it,” she said. “I’m looking forward to working on it this summer for those kids who are out of school because they’re sick, or if they need possible tutoring down the line.”

Remus said her principal is excited about the possibilities the technology holds, and secondary meetings with district officials are planned.

University labs have had intelligent avatars on their radar for some time. In 2007, the National Science Foundation awarded a half-million dollar, three-year grant to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the University of Central Florida in Orlando (UCF) to help researchers create the methodology for making such virtual figures commonplace.

UIC researchers are focusing on computer graphics and virtual interaction capabilities, and UCF researchers are working on the AI and natural language processing software.

UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory also began work on a motion-capture studio that would digitize the image and movement of real people. Databases will contain the digital figures’ knowledge.

Future applications for education are broad.

“In the future, I could begin to build a subject matter expert that is based off two or three subject or curriculum experts, and combine that knowledge into a single repository, where now I will build this super-intelligent teacher or avatar as an information or reference source,” Davidson said. “The amount of content that is available to the avatar to be used to extract the right answer or response to a question or inquiry is unlimited.”

Other uses already in practice include creating an avatar of a famous or historical person. In addition to Intellitar’s Benjamin Franklin , a clone of Alexander Hamilton exists at a New York-based museum.

“You [can] build an intelligent avatar of a famous historical or important figure, and you interact with [it] by asking questions, and the content is based on the volumes of information about that person’s life or experiences,” Davidson said. “Students can have this library of historical figures.”

The technology also might be used to create virtual tutors for different subjects.

“Now I have an interactive avatar that is a subject matter expert, and because it’s web-based and interactive, this subject matter expert could be an interactive tutor to a student,” Davidson said.

Intelligent avatars also might have their place in professional education. Davidson said one application might appear in a health-care organization that creates an intelligent avatar that is an expert in childhood obesity.

“I would populate all the information and content into the AI frame and supplement it with frequently asked questions, articles, and reference information,” he said. “Now, parents can go interact with this subject-matter expert, which might serve to give them tips or information on how to prevent or avoid childhood obesity.”

Although intelligent avatars created in a teacher’s likeness might prompt some to wonder how necessary teachers themselves might become in the near future, Davidson said Intellitar doesn’t foresee avatars replacing teachers anytime soon.

“Is this a technology we envision as eliminating the teacher? Absolutely not,” he said. “What we see is that the role of the teacher changes a little bit, where now the teacher becomes the content provider, the teacher becomes the one who sits and interacts with the avatar adding certain information, monitoring questions and interactions it receives from students, and then adding critical pieces of information to complement the avatar’s knowledge base.”

In fact, creating an intelligent avatar that is an extension of a classroom teacher can only improve learning opportunities, Davidson said: “We see it as a way for [teachers] to truly leverage technology and add their own twist and their own subject-matter views.”

The initial expense and workload come in the first stages, when the Intellitar team and educator build content or curriculum and create the avatar’s knowledge base. After that, teachers simply update the avatars with new facts or additional information to ensure that everything is current.

Curriculum providers with digital versions of that curriculum could easily push that information out to teachers, who would then direct it to their own avatars’ knowledge base.

“It’s geared to the way kids want to learn,” Davidson said.

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