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The Role of Agency and Interactivity in Embodied Conversational Agents to Support Teacher Training in High Poverty Schools: 2119265

Principal Investigator: Mubbasir Kapadia
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Elisa Shernoff, Matthew Stone
Organization: Rutgers University New Brunswick
NSF Award Information: The Role of Agency and Interactivity in Embodied Conversational Agents to Support Teacher Training in High Poverty Schools
Challenges with classroom behavior management predicts teacher stress and attrition and support for behavior management is a top professional priority identified by teachers. Traditional training for teachers in behavior management (e.g., workshops, whole group in-service training) has failed to produce substantial improvements in teachers’ work-related knowledge and skills. Virtual Reality-based training provides an opportunity for teachers to practice responding positively to disruptive behaviors with the freedom to explore and fail in a low-stakes setting. However, existing platforms suffer from low usability and limited realism, particularly when simulating conversational interactions. This project offers a synergistic exploration of the educational impact of immersive, conversational learning environments, and the fundamental technical capabilities for building intelligent virtual agents. Specifically, the aim of the project is to systematically study the impact of embodied conversational agents on learning outcomes of teachers in high poverty schools, where discipline disparities and exclusionary discipline practices are prominent and positive discipline approaches are needed to promote engagement and learning.

This project supports the development and release of a new platform for specifying embodied conversational interaction, combining recent advances in intelligent virtual agents, generative modeling of communicative behavior, and human-in-the-loop design. The project outcomes will push the boundaries of agency and interactivity in virtual reality training platforms, where teachers can fully immerse themselves in virtual classrooms and engage with autonomous virtual students capable of expressing themselves using facial expressions, hand and body gestures, and spoken language. These free-form interactions are theorized to support transfer of learning from one setting (e.g., virtual classroom) to a new setting (e.g., live classroom), where teachers may carry forward applicable knowledge and skills. The research plan includes a series of studies over a 3-year time period, to systematically study the impact of agency and interactivity in virtual training platforms on the training outcomes of teachers, and their ability to transfer knowledge and skills to real classrooms. This type of training in behavior management provides an unique opportunity to augment existing support to teachers and foster the dissemination and implementation of effective training that can ultimately enhance student achievement and student/teacher well-being.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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