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Virtual Robot / Avatar facilitator for small group discussions in an online environment

In the education system, both primary, secondary, and higher education, learning in peer groups has become the preferred and most efficient learning style. In higher education, the appearance of on-line courses has shown that hybrid learning that involves peer groups discussions on individual learning via on-line material results in highest learning gains. In primary and secondary schools, due to large pupil/teacher ratio, learning is performed in small groups, wherein the teacher either invests in one or two groups, or roams between groups; both options result in most children not getting personal treatment and attention. Due the COVID19 pandemic, the situation has worsened, where large online classes are much more challenging to manage and maintain, and small groups, while still a preferred option, is very problematic.
Our solution is a virtual Robot Facilitator (vRobotator) of small group activities. The virtual robot, or avatar, can facilitate the discussion, teach the material, personalize the curriculum to each individual and group and perform according to best practices of group facilitation. The platform is a website that incorporates Zoom activity, a facilitating avatar and a panel for content presentation and interaction. It also enables facial expression and speaker recognition in real time and adjust its behavior to optimize the social climate within the group.
We have developed an open web-based platform for teachers and educators to insert the content of the activity, such that the content is crowd-sourced, enabling many teachers and schools to use the system, in various classes, e.g. science, civic, humanities, engineering, etc. The web-platform converts the inserted content into a fully autonomous avatar-group interaction. Hence, the facilitation is performed automatically, according to best practices and AI algorithms that dynamically analyze the students facial expressions and verbal participation and choose the optimal facilitation to maintain engagement, equitable group participation and learning outcomes.

Current status:

The platform has been piloted in two schools in Israel, with full collaboration and funding from the AI Lab of the R&D department in the Ministry of Education. The system is patent pending.
During the pilot, which included more than 50 students from grades 8th, 9th and 10th, we have reached promising results, based on subjective questionnaires and feedback, as well as objective measures. Students reported that the activity with the avatar was easier, more understandable, induced a more efficient group interaction and collaboration, compared to the activity without the avatar. Furthermore, they reported that they have listen more to their group members, as well as expressing themselves more, with the avatar compared to without it.  The avatar was rated to be fascinating and understandable, and when asked to compare it directly to the activity without the avatar, students reported that the activity with the avatar teaches them more and induces more group interaction.                                                                                                                                                                                   
Objective measures showed that students interacting with the avatar answered more questions correctly, discussed more and where more engaged, compared to the activity without the avatar (Fig 1).