Making connections

This past week I spent most of my time reading again about information that is required to answer the questions 1 through 3 of the previous week’s blog entry.  I dropped question 2 because it seemed irrelevant, after meeting with my research mentor. THe most important highlight of this past week was the meeting with my mentor, where the research I had done culminated into a lively exchange of ideas and an interesting discussion on the difference between human-virtual agent interaction and human-human interaction.

The meeting with my research mentor took two hours. The rest of my 13 hours this past week went to reading various articles. I had focused on finding more information on two broad areas, that summarize questions 1 through 3 very well.

  1. What is engagement in tutoring? How can we measure engagement? This is asked because engagement is a very vague topic, and how one defines it, whether by the number of utterances a subject makes or the number of problem -focused statements he makes, can be tricky.
  2. What is different about human-human and human-agent rapport? The Articulab has done a lot of research on human-human rapport in order to build a socially sensitive virtual agent, but more research needs to be done on how humans actually perceive agents.
    1. Some sub-questions to this topic include: If a human knows the agent is not really human, will they be less motivated to finish the task? Is it proper for a virtual agent to seek eye contact with a  person or is this too imposing? Surprisingly, research has shown that the more photorealistic an agent is, the more eye contact is expected by the human it interacts with. On the other hand, an agent that is not at al photorealistic comes across as threatening or artificial when it seeks eye contact.

My extensive research found many articles looking at various kinds of behavior differences in humans when they are faced with other humans versus virtual agents. These articles asked questions like, “Do humans desire eye contact with the virtual agent? Does a head nod at the wrong time decrease the rapport a human builds with an agent? If the agent mimics head movements and posture from the human, will the agent establish higher rapport?” The answers, for those who are curious, are it depends, yes, and yes.

In order to find a proper operationalization for “engagement”, I looked at the theory of working alliances for teaching. The theory states that patients that form a bond with their therapist (it was originally made for therapist-patient relations and later adapted to education) , are very reliably able to achieve better clinical outcomes than patients who don’t bond. In education, this means the student must feel that himself and the teacher are working towards a common goal the student has, as opposed to a unidirectional boss-servant kind of relationship. Anyway, the importance of this was mainly to measure engagement, but it seemed too abstract. Other researchers, like Jonathan Gratch at the University of Southern California, believe that engagement can be measured by amount of speech. In his paper “Agreeable people like agreeable virtual tutors” (2008), John Gratch uses a storytelling paradigm where a human tells an agent a story (but thinks the agent is actually an avatar controlled by a human).  For Gratch, more engagement is observable via longer stories, which indicate the human wants to continue speaking to the virtual agent. However, this still seems too simple a measure, because conceivably a child could utter several sentences to his teacher but not be engaged by the material he is learning. Such is the difficulty of operationalizing engagement.

My greatest challenge this week was to tie the ideas I found together. Though in this blog I briefly mention the ideas from articles about body posture mimicry and head nods, there are many articles I read on such topics and each had its own goal. Some articles pointed out contradictions in others, which my mentor said is common in the scientific world, because articles re not meant to be flawless statements of fact, but rather educated guesses at the phenomenon that is occurring. Anyway, this challenge was overcome by meeting with my mentor and mapping out all the ideas and discarding ideas that deviate from the central mission of the CREU project One topic that was discarded was whether quality of communication is increased by agents who avoid gazing directly at humans. This was discarded because “quality of communication” was not clearly operationalized in the article. It was not thoroughly explained enough. Another discarded topic came from an article that concluded that middle school students speak in patterns that alternate between playful social talk and focused on-task talk, indicating their tendency to be building rapport even when trying to focus on something that’s socially irrelevant. While such a topic is interesting, the question arises as to what is important from this conclusion. Interesting conclusions might be not lead to new avenues of research.

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