Thursday, July 14, 2016

Why your avatar (could/will) make a better pronunciation teacher than your are!
Since the emergence of Second Life in 2003, I have been fascinated with the prospect of avatars teaching language. At the time, for technical reasons, I could not get my avatars to respond quickly enough with good audio to do much and gave up. (From recent reviews, it appears that most of those issues, including monitoring of offensive content, have been resolved and I may give it another look.)

A 2016 study of avatars teaching math to kids by Cook, Friedman, Duggan, Cui and Popescu provides an interesting perspective. The focus of the study was to attempt to isolate the effect of gesture, independent of facial expression, body motion and other features of the presenter's persona. As the researchers note, one of the problems with identifying the impact of gesture (from the abstract) is that it is "known to co-vary with other non-verbal behaviors, including eye gaze and prosody along with face, lip, and body movements . . . "

The avatars presented a fixed background such that only the hand movement varied. (The voice used and various graphic figures remained constant.) The effect was "pronounced". The subjects who viewed the gesturing avatar not only learned the concepts more successfully but also were later able to apply the material better. (That is not really surprising since a number of studies have established that students just learn better when teachers gesture more.) But avatars bring something more to the party--or less!

In principle, how much of pronunciation could an avatar teach (either with or without gesture assist)? Probably most of it. (And I predict that that day is not far off.) One reason for that, mentioned above by Cook et al. is the fact that gesture tends to co-vary with other "non-verbal behaviors" such as . . . prosody? (Prosody is nonverbal? Really?)The basis of effective gesture use in instruction often depends critically on the learners' attention being "locked" on the cuing or anchoring motion; the gesture in tern is also strongly associated with a sound or process.

As reported in several previous posts, loss of attention or distraction is a most important variable in haptic (gesture plus touch) pronunciation teaching as well. The video models that we use now are for the most part black and white, with black background and no subtitles on screen, designed to focus learner attention on the movement and positioning basically of my hands, not the model's face or body. Addition of color, extraneous movement, or additional graphics will always pull at least some learners away from the focus of the lesson embodied in the pedagogical gestures. (Research on competition between visual, auditory and kinaesthetic or haptic, has demonstrated consistently that visual displays almost always trump the others, even in combination.)

For gesture-based pronunciation or other kinds of instruction for that matter, interactive "thinking" and responding Avatars offer real promise. The technology has been around for over a decade, in fact. Advantages of avatars include:
  • Individualized, more affordable computer-based instruction 
  • Systematic application of gesture in instruction, especially providing consistent placement of gesture in the visual field.
  • More effective attention management, neutralizing potential visual distractions
  • Emotionally "comfortable" instruction for a wider range learner personalities
  • Avoids unconscious transmission of:
    • Instructor "bad day" images and attitudes
    • Typical "hyperactive" pronunciation teacher behavior
    • Overreactions, positive or negative, to student miscues or "victories"
    • Instructor bias toward "teacher pets" or gaze avoidance in eye contact patterning during instruction
 Time to reactivate my Avatar. Will upload a demo later this summer.  

 Cook, S. W., Friedman, H. S., Duggan, K. A., Cui, J. and Popescu, V. (2016), Hand Gesture and Mathematics Learning: Lessons From an Avatar. Cognitive Science. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12344

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