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
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 …