The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Lewis Johnson, president and CEO of Alelo, Inc., a Los Angeles-based startup that uses AI-driven avatars for personalized asynchronous learning. Johnson explained how avatar simulations can increase student engagement.
Gillian Diebold: Alelo was originally designed to train the military on language and cultural etiquette. What was the catalyst for applying the technology to K-12 education?
Lewis Johnson: We felt that our approach was not limited to military training and could have a broad impact in education as well. We also felt that education would likely be a better market for us because we could offer solutions around the world on an ongoing subscription basis. Sales to the military, in contrast, tend to be one-time sales.
We started by offering courses to higher-ed institutions. Some of our higher-ed customers operate high schools and offered our solution to students in their high schools. So, that got us involved in education at the K-12 level. Also, educational researchers saw the potential of our work and reached out to us to run trials in schools.
Diebold: Why are avatar-based AI simulations the best way to engage students in learning?
Johnson: Our AI-driven avatars provide students with a safe opportunity to learn and practice new skills. They can practice as much as they want without fear of embarrassing themselves by making mistakes. They get feedback immediately, instead of waiting for their teacher to give them feedback.
Avatar-based learning combines two powerful learning methods: learning by doing and learning by explaining. Students learn by doing as they interact with avatars in life-like simulations. Studies have shown that learning by doing is up to six times more effective than learning by passive reading and watching. Practice in simulations builds self-confidence, so when students encounter similar situations in the real world, they are ready to apply what they learned.
Learning by explaining, sometimes referred to as the protégé effect, occurs when a student explains what they learned to the avatar. This forces students to internalize and apply what they have learned and aids retention.
This combination of learning by doing and learning by explaining is highly effective for achieving rapid skill development. Students find it to be fun and engaging.
Diebold: What are the benefits of avatars for educators?
Johnson: Our AI technology serves as an “aide intelligente” (intelligent assistant) for educators, not a replacement for educators. It supports students by providing immediate feedback and personalized guidance when educators are not available. Educators report that when students come to class after working with our Enskill platform they are better prepared and ready to engage in classroom activities.
When students interact with avatars on Enskill it is constantly collecting and analyzing student responses. Enskill generates analytics from these data that measure student performance and progress toward mastery and makes these analytics available to educators. The benefits of this became particularly apparent when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a transition to remote learning.
Our AI-driven avatars contrast with operator-driven avatars, where a human operator (e.g., a teacher) controls the expressions and actions of the avatar. AI-driven avatars save teacher time and effort, while human-driven avatars do not.
Diebold: Can you explain the core technology behind the Alelo platform?
Johnson: When a student speaks to an avatar running on the student’s computer or mobile device, a recording of the student’s speech is sent to the nearest Enskill server running in the cloud. Enskill software running on the server converts the speech utterance into text, and then uses natural language processing technology to infer the intended meaning of the student’s utterance. The inferred meaning depends upon the current dialogue context and the task that the student is performing. Enskill then determines what actions (e.g., spoken response, gesture) the avatar should perform in response, and sends commands back to the avatar software on the student’s device. It saves the student’s data and the avatar responses in cloud-based storage, for review and analysis.
Diebold: How can technology in the classroom help prepare students to enter the workforce?
Johnson: Avatar technology helps students develop core competencies such as communication skills. According to a report by LinkedIn Learning, communication is the most in-demand skill for the future of work.
Students interacting with avatars must apply what they have learned, which encourages higher levels of processing in Bloom’s Taxonomy and promotes better retention. Because students find avatars engaging and challenging, they may be less likely to disengage from classroom instruction and drop out.
When applied in the contexts of secondary vocational education, avatar simulations can expose students to tasks and situations similar to what they will encounter on the job, and so can give students a head start in career preparation and a pathway to employment.