4 Districts Review New A.I. Teacher Assistant
What if there were a new software application that uses your own teachers digitized into animated avatars to present lessons? Learners engage in interactive conversations with socially intelligent virtual humans in a realistic setting – the teacher-as-avatar. Such an application could be a huge time saver for teachers for many subjects, and also be a useful way to reduce “Zoom fatigue” because lessons can be moved through at the student’s own speed and get personalized sets of questions.
What if it also employs artificial intelligence so that it learns as it goes, from how students interact and answer after setting up a lesson sequence? The A.I. would give feedback so the teacher can tweak the lesson based on where students stumble or keep missing a question, allowing the teacher to use a different tactic or build in more material.
Since we are currently in the biggest teacher shortage ever, and over 33 percent of all U.S. students have moved to alternatives such as homeschooling, private, or charter schools, A.I. and digital avatars looks like a promising new trend.
The Learning Counsel asked four districts to check out this new concept in software. While this technology has been around for a while in the military and corporate sector, it is now coming to the rescue of teachers to create real engagement and work as a much-needed assistant.
Here are the four reviews:
Garland Independent School District, Texas
Dr. Jasna Aliefendic, Technology Applications Coordinator, Teaching & Learning Development
“In one sentence, Alelo has created a REVOLUTIONARY product! So innovative, so applicable, so relevant, and so timely! Kudos to Alelo’s development team! While there is still a lot to do to make it applicable to all subject areas, the product seems to be highly effective as it applies to English Language Learners as well as learners studying a foreign language. The interactive activities with teacher as an avatar providing feedback immediately in a variety of everyday situations is exactly what these students need, especially now when we have so many remote learners. Impressive!”
St. Vrain Valley Schools, Colorado
Kahle Charles, Assistant Superintendent, Assessment, Curriculum, and Instruction; and Joe McBreen, Technology Consultant (former CIO)
“We have reviewed Alelo’s English and Spanish offerings and here are our comments. Joe spent considerable time reviewing and had several conversations with the president of the company.
Summary: We will keep an eye on Alelo because they have a great vision, and as their offerings increase, their value will multiply exponentially. Their current English language offerings appear solid, and their Spanish language content collection will catch up.
Big Picture: We, too, appreciate the concept and direction Alelo is going. The intended benefits of their approach and results are needed in our schools today and will remain a need for the foreseeable future.
Initial concerns: After going through the content, we were concerned that the range of utterances and intentions is too narrow to establish authentic learning. In other words, the narrow focus of each segment and the AI supporting that segment is so precise or prescribed that it sometimes feels more like a typical drilling software than ‘conversational’ in nature.
Concerns addressed: We asked Lewis Johnson, Alelo President and CEO if our concerns regarding the narrow focus and limited conversational range of each segment or module are valid. We pressed him to reveal if that approach was by design or if the intention is to grow the range of utterances and intentions over time for each segment so that it feels more ‘conversational’?
He referenced research literature on task-based language learning and its benefit. Basically, you can’t have a conversation with the avatar about any old topic, and it has to be relevant to the task.
Alelo adopted the task-based, focused-conversation approach because of research, alignment with language proficiency standards, and the fact that it makes it easier for the AI to interpret the student’s utterances when they make mistakes. Said another way, if the AI can assume that the student is attempting communication functions relevant to the task, it can do a better job of recognizing intents despite errors.
Because of this approach, the beginner-level conversations are more structured than the intermediate-level conversations. This works because beginners need more structure (they may be uncertain of what to say or how to say it), whereas intermediate-level students can “freestyle” in conversations with the A.I.
Accessibility: Alelo has addressed 508 compliance, and they intend to meet WCAG standards in the future. This is important to keep an eye on moving forward and a possible deal-breaker for many institutions as all students must access the learning.
Fresno Unified School District, CA
Kurt Madden, Chief Technology Officer
(Definition: The uncanny valley is a phenomenon that occurs in the human psyche and perception with regards to objects that are human-like, usually robots and images, and determines our reaction towards that object.)
“I agree with you that it won’t be long before A.I. assistants become viable for K12 (as you know, they are already viable in other industries). However, Alelo doesn’t seem to be targeting K12 students* – and their animation has the “uncanny valley” feel to it where it’s not real enough to emotionally connect to. Having the art improve enough to get on the other side of the uncanny valley is critical to students and many teachers who play enough realistic video games these days that they are used to something better.
(If) they could also stay on the more animated side of the uncanny valley, it would speed up their characters’ actions and be more focused on the instructional side.
I’m assuming the AI engine is high enough quality to handle the kinds of topics and issues that come up in a class or that teachers might ask.”
*Note that Alelo was newly targeting K12 in 2020.
Lewis Johnson, President and CEO of Alelo, shared his insights on the ‘uncanny valley’ feel of avatars. Johnson stated: “We find that the experience of the uncanny valley depends a lot on the user population and the task being performed. Students who are cognitively engaged in a task in conversation with an avatar tend to focus more on the task and less on the details of the avatar’s appearance. Conversation in a foreign language can be very cognitively demanding. Perhaps for this reason, over 100,000 adult learners train with Alelo products and we never get complaints from them about uncanny-valley issues.
However we recognize that school-age children can be very demanding, and so we are incorporating more stylized avatar graphics in our K-12 learning products.”
Little Rock School District, Arkansas
Travis Taylor, Ph.D., Instructional Technology Specialist, Department of Instructional Technology
“This made me go back to some of my course textbooks because I couldn’t remember what the name of this was. They are called pedagogical agents. The research goes back to the early 2000s. Pedagogical agents have been shown to have very positive effects on student learning and personalization and this was 2007. The addition of AI takes it to a whole new level. Previous research highlighted the social benefits of it toward social emotional learning and social presence was in Garrison’s work.
Had it not been for COVID-19, I probably would not have taken a second look at this, but I can definitely see this as being a part of K-12 and education as school evolves over the next year. Everything is changing.”
Learning Counsel analyst review:
Alelo’s work includes packages on AI customization for new K12 customers. The back-end software is strong in A.I. especially with branch logic, but to derive a lesson with multiple directions that answering, or learning could go, requires thinking through real differentiation, a non-linear coder mindset to instruction that teachers will need to grasp. They will need to move beyond whole group teaching and use their memories of how students have learned, or failed, in order to build branching paths that work for a majority of students.
Where we could see real traction for teachers is through Alelo’s A.I. which can use failure points from users to adapt. This is a higher definition of A.I. that we see in most educational offerings who are merely using coded branch logic but not flagging error points to build out.
Schools that need to reposition teaching to not be so dependent on live video-conferencing lecturing, would find this refinement-over-time aspect crucial because few teachers would nail it the first time in putting a lesson in. Ultimately the use of avatar-assistant lessons has the promise of giving teachers back time to craft other lessons and to pay more attention to individual students who need specific direct instruction.
Since both schedules and the use of space have been dramatically altered during the pandemic and will continue to be under pressure due to competition from alternatives, this new technology for K12 is expected to trend up through 2021.
For more information about Alelo:
A recorded webinar for K12:
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.