By Joshua Preston
On the internet, students are able to take courses from anywhere and set their own pace for learning, but online convenience can come at a cost to building social connections and finding support to succeed.
To directly address social barriers in virtual classes, the new Jill Watson Social Agent, an artificially intelligent system from the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been designed to connect online students quickly to their peers. It is being deployed in the institute’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science program (OMSCS) as well as two campus classes.
Using the Jill Watson AI framework, the social agent is intended ultimately to help support students from different walks of life adapt more quickly to rigorous course requirements and foster a community where students can build their own social structures in the context of learning.
“In previous semesters, we had what we called an introduction agent that responded to student introductions and greeted students. Now we have a more fully realized social AI agent that can help students connect virtually and in real life,” said Ida Camacho, the lead engineer for the redesigned AI.
Encouraging social interactions among students using the Jill social agent demanded that Camacho and the research team rethink the AI’s construct. Questions of privacy came up early on, and researchers found out from testing that if the social agent was too personal, students might get distracting playing with it.
Using student introductions in the online forum, researchers prompted students to share personal details in order to help build a model for the agent. Using this unstructured data presented its own challenges, such as when the system encountered certain words, such as ‘Paris’ and had to parse out whether it was a location or it was referring to a certain blonde celebrity.
One of Camacho’s design decisions centers on creating summaries of student information that is viewable by those enrolled.
When students enter the forum and introduce themselves now, the Jill social agent can immediately share top results by percent of classmates based on location, timezone, other courses being taken, and primary interests.
“We wanted students to feel like they are part of the community without giving up their anonymity,” said Camacho. “Increasing student engagement and creating micro-communities are two of our primary goals.”
Students can also choose to join conversations based on any area of interest (location, hobbies, etc.) using the hashtag #ConnectMe, which allows them to see and click on individual student names for those who opt in.
Based on early results, students seem to have already taken to the new Jill social agent.
“One thing that surprised me was that students started trying to connect IRL, or in real life,” said Camacho. “They wanted to set up study groups and meet each other. This was happening all over the place, like New York City, Austin, and Tokyo.”
Camacho suspected there might be a hunger for more social interactions in online courses, and she is fully committed to delivering the best student experience on this front.
“I envision the social agent being used more than just at the start of classes,” she said. “It’s already creating some social glue, getting students to talk right away so they don’t feel like they’re in this all alone.
“Jill can keep the conversation going, and I’m planning for the AI at the end of the semester to share recommendations by students on courses they’ve taken.”
Camacho in one sense is the ideal person to head the Design & Intelligence Lab’s new Jill social agent initiative. The Fresno, Calif., resident is a recent alumna of the OMSCS program and knows how important it was to stay engaged with her peers.
“I feel like if I hadn’t met anyone I might not have been as successful. My community-building started when others invited me into their study groups and I became a teaching assistant.”
She jokes that when she was a student, she enrolled in the program’s Knowledge-Based AI course – where the Jill Watson virtual TA was deployed using a pseudonym – to see if she could pick out the AI amongst the human TAs helping students in the online forums.
“I guessed wrong,” she said laughing. “I ended up thinking that it was the head TA. He was online all the time answering student questions. How can someone be online that much?”
Jill Watson being indistinguishable from its human counterparts might be taken as a good sign by the lab’s researchers as they continue to build the future of AI and help students from around the world succeed in pursuing online learning.