Coming Soon to Classrooms? Emotion Sensing Software

Coming Soon to Classrooms? Emotion Sensing Software

Developments with mobile learning, along with emerging technologies such as augmented reality, game-based learning and gesture-based computing are adding new and futuristic sounding enhancements for potential use in the online classroom. Now you can add emotion-sensing software and avatars to the list of possibilities for online learning with the introduction of AutoTutor, described as “emotion-sensing computer software that responds to students’ cognitive and emotional states, including frustration and boredom.”

While the application of this software for online classrooms is still speculative, it does lead to questions about the role of emotions in the learning process. For example, do the emotions of online students need to be recognized, acknowledged, and addressed by their instructors? And if so, will AutoTutor provide a solution and lead the way for developments in emotion-based learning?

AutoTutor: Emotion Sensing Learning Software

AutoTutor has been developed as a joint project by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, University of Memphis, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation through a grant titled “Inducing, Tracking, and Regulating Confusion and Cognitive Disequilibrium During Complex Learning.” The research has been completed, the software developed, and it will soon be made available for use.

Goal #1: Achieve Equilibrium from Confusion

It’s important to start by examining the project underpinnings so you understand why this software was developed and how it relates to the process of learning. Based upon the title of the project there are two foundational elements:

1. Confusion - As defined by the project this “is an emotion that correlates with learning gains because it is diagnostic of cognitive disequilibrium, a state that occurs when learners face obstacles to goals, contradictions, incongruities, anomalies, conflicts, and system breakdowns.” That is a very technically-based way of describing the sense of discomfort (emotions) you may experience if you have any form of conflict or sense of confusion in your class. This could include finding instructions that are unclear or needing additional resources.

2. Cognitive Equilibrium - This is defined as a state that “is normally restored after thought, reflection, problem solving and other effortful cognitive activities.” This simply means that you feel better once the source confusion or frustration is resolved.

The researchers wanted to address the disruption in cognitive processing that students experience whenever they encounter an obstacle to the process of learning with this software. What does that mean? When students are uncertain or confused it can create a powerful response in the form of feelings. Those feelings can be detrimental if not properly managed. The purpose of this project is to develop a means of support for the emotional reactions experienced, so that learning can effectively occur.

Goal #2: Stimulate the Learning Process

The researchers also considered learning activities that can be developed to intentionally disrupt students’ thought processes as a means of stimulating the process of learning. For example, if students are challenged to analyze a topic, rather than provide cursory information or opinions, they are likely to utilize advanced cognitive functions and that in turn will cause them to comprehend the meaning of the topics discussed. You’ll find that many online instructors already use this approach by encouraging you to utilize critical thinking and demonstrate your ability to analyze course topics.

For additional reading about the origins of AutoTutor, you can visit the Emotive Computing website for a list of reports and studies related to this project. You can also try an animated version of this software by visiting the AutoTutor website. The following is a screen shot of a test version of AutoTutor.

AutoTutorGoal #3: Provide Individualized Instruction on Complex Topics

AutoTutor is described as an Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS). Through its initial conception it was developed to “help students learn complex technical content in Newtonian physics, computer literacy, and critical thinking by holding a conversation in natural language.” It is designed to be implemented as an instructional strategy because the software will tailor its responses and interactions to each student individually. As I read this description I considered how online students would react to a program that requires a greater level of computer competency. Students often have a learning curve when starting a new online degree program and many have limited computer skills. A program like this might be better suited for advanced courses rather than introductory courses so students can become familiar with the online classroom features first, before tackling another program.

AutoTutor is interactive in nature because it will also be “answering students’ questions, keeping them engaged with images, animations, and simulations, not to mention its emotion-sensitive capabilities by monitoring facial features, body language, and conversational cues; regulating negative states such as frustration and boredom.” That seems like a fairly tall order to fill from a software program and suggests highly advanced technology. It seems to also require focused attention on the part of students so that the program can monitor their emotional state. This means that you would have to be working in an environment that is quiet and conducive to this learning experience – not at work on your lunch hour or at home in a place where there are numerous distractions.

The Role of Emotions and Learning

The AutoTutor software program monitors emotions, for the purpose of creating a positive learning experience. Dr. Lawson, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Development and Learning, provided the following explanation in Emotions and Learning: “Emotions and learning occur in the brain. Learning means acquiring knowledge or skills. Learning requires thinking. Our thoughts influence how we feel. How we feel influences how we think. So our emotions are determined by our interpretation, or what we think about what we see.” What this indicates is that during the process of learning you are going to think and feel, and what you feel will influence how you learn. You can probably agree with this statement, especially if you reflect on a negative classroom experience and how your attitude towards the class and/or instructor changed because of that incident.

Daniel Goleman, who wrote a landmark book titled Emotional Intelligence, has addressed Social & Emotional Learning in a recent blog. Goleman believes that “social and emotional learning programs pave the way for better academic learning” because “they teach children social and emotional skills that are intimately linked with cognitive development.” Goleman also describes an ideal learning environment as one where students are “focused, fully attentive, motivated, and engaged, and enjoy their work.” He further notes that the learning process is influenced in a positive manner by the relationships developed between instructors and their students.

The Online Environment

Are emotions of greater concern for online students? Kerry O’Regan, with the Learning and Teaching Development Unit at The University of Adelaide, explains in Emotions and E-Learning that “life online is not the same as life in the face to face world. Our very identity becomes something uncertain and ambiguous.” O’Regan conducted a study to analyze the connection between emotions and learning for online students. The results found that “particular emotions were identified as being significant for those students, including frustration, fear, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, enthusiasm, excitement and pride.” Those emotional responses either enhanced or inhibited the learning process.

Often it is the instructor’s responsiveness to students and classroom conditions that determines the outcome of initial reactive emotions. For example, if you post a question for your instructor and you feel uncertain about something – and the instructor does not respond right away – you may feel frustrated and disconnected from the class because your instructor is not physically present. Because your instructor cannot see you they are not likely to know immediately that you are feeling frustrated or upset.

AutoTutor was tested on over 1,000 students and the results indicated “learning gains of approximately one letter grade – gains that have proven to outperform novice human tutors and almost reach the bar of expert human tutors.” There is no indication what the cost for schools or students might be – or if there have been studies that make a correlation between the cost and actual benefits. In other words, would it be of greater value for your instructor to maintain periodic contact with you, or would you prefer to spend time being monitored by a computer software program to determine how you are feeling as you work online?

Future Implications

It is yet to be seen how AutoTutor might influence classroom interactions. In other words, it is designed as a specific program with a set of instructions to follow. It can sense how you are feeling as you work with the software. If you have a program that responds while you are working on a task or activity, are you going to have positive feelings about the class overall? Will that lessen or change the impact of other emotions you may experience as your interact with your instructors and classmates? More importantly, what will the cost be for students and institutions?

From my experience as an online instructor it still seems that the human element matters most for creating a positive environment and generating positive emotions. Perhaps AutoTutor can be implemented as an interactive learning activity to supplement your instructors’ work and adapt as needed when it senses that you have become bored with the task. Keep an eye out for more information, along with future updates and research, on this innovative new program that has many potential uses for online learning.

How do emotions influence your work as an online student? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

Photo © Mehau Kulyk/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Screenshot © digitalunion.osu.edu

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