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What Can Children Learn from Virtual Playmates?

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February 28, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Can “virtual” playmates -- what the Northwestern University researcher who created them calls “embodied conversational agents” -- help “real world” children develop language and literacy skills?

Justine Cassell, professor of communication studies and director of the Program of Technology and Social Behavior program at Northwestern University, thinks so. Cassell recently presented a paper describing her work with “Sam,” “Alex” and other chatty, fidgety computer-generated cartoon children who move about on a screen at the annual Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in St. Louis.

Built on a unique methodology that relies on data about children’s natural development, Cassell’s “virtual peers” are capable of interacting with children and engaging in collaborative storytelling.

“Children often first acquire language and literacy skills in social contexts such as language play and storytelling,” explained Cassell, a linguist and psychologist who calls her laboratory the Articulab. “The listener -- the people with whom children talk and interact -- plays an essential role in building language and literacy skills in youngsters,” Cassell said. “That’s why kindergarten teachers engage in sharing time, round-robin storytelling and other student-to-student activities.” And that’s where virtual peers have an advantage, said Cassell. “Real world classmates can be disruptive, disengaged or lack the language skills that we adults want children to acquire. Virtual peers look and act like a playmate but have the capabilities of an adult and therefore can help to positively contribute to children’s learning skills,” Cassell added.

The Articulab has created Alex, a virtual playmate who speaks African American vernacular English (AAVE) to provide a “cultural modeling framework” for AAVE speakers. Work with “Storyteller Sam” has been found to assist children in developing important literary skills. In a study looking at “Collaborative Sam,” Cassell finds that children willingly interrupt, criticize and otherwise tightly engage with virtual peers.

Cassell’s research is based supported by the National Science Foundation.