Embodied Pedagogical Agents: From Visual Impact to Pedagogical Implications

University dissertation from Institutionen för designvetenskaper, Lunds Tekniska Högskola, Lunds universitet

Abstract: Embodied pedagogical agents – visually represented, computer generated characters in pedagogical roles, such as virtual instructors, mentors and learning companions – populate the digital society in increasing numbers. They are found in educational programmes from preschool to university, as well as in broader educational contexts in the form of medical counsellors, virtual health coaches, information guides, etc. Since long, they also appear in edutainment and infotainment settings. The thesis addresses psychological, cognitive and social aspects of embodied virtual characters in pedagogical contexts with respect to ‘static visual characteristics’, i.e. underlying visual characteristics. On the basis of theoretical considerations as well as several empirical studies, it is argued that users’ visual and aesthetic experience of embodied pedagogical characters (EPCs) is too important to be treated as a secondary issue – not the least with respect to central pedagogical goals to motivate and engage. The main conclusions of the thesis are: (i) that visual aspects in EPCs can be related to pedagogical outcomes, (ii) that there may be significant relations between visual and social characteristics of EPCs and learner characteristics, and (iii) that EPCs may reproduce stereotypes from everyday real life human-human interaction, as well as from traditional visual media – but that they simultaneously harbour a considerable potential to challenge stereotypes. As a tool for the research community, a framework of a visual graphical design space is proposed. The framework may scaffold the design of user evaluations, which often are blurred by uncontrolled visually related variables. With regard to weak user evaluations, the thesis furthermore argues that there is a problem with user evaluations based upon the concept of ‘the User’, i.e. an averaged standardized user. In order to reveal important correlations between agent characteristics and user characteristics, it is often necessary to identify relevant subgroups of users rather than to treat the whole user group as an ‘averaged user’. And finally – virtual agents may have a not yet thought of potential as research tools …