Engaging in Computer-Controlled Learning

By Frank Amthor

Learning is hard. Most people spend at least 7 hours a day for 12 years just to qualify for a high school diploma. If you have dyslexia, autism, or some other learning disability, your struggle to achieve this competence may be arduous.

Neuroscientists now understand much more about how the brain learns than even ten years ago, and what they know is that learning in some contexts at some rates is much easier than in others. Computers are starting to be used to implement contexts for learning that accelerate it in children, people with learning disabilities, and older adults.

Highly proficient computer tutors are being embodied in avatars, computer simulations of teaching characters with whom the student interacts. Being taught by such avatars will be like having like Plato, da Vinci, and Einstein (to mention a few) all wrapped into one tutor, who also possesses extraordinary personal and communication skills. The infinitely patient and knowledgeable computer tutor would set challenges at the optimum level with respect to the student’s current ability, and these challenges would be interesting but not intimidating. Learning could be embedded in games. Mathematics and science could be presented in an intuitive, interactive, visual manner.

Avatars are likely to become helpful companions for children, adults suffering dementia, and possibly even people afflicted with psychological disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and autism. In research, an avatar system called FaceSay has shown some success teaching autistic children to monitor facial expressions and, thus, interact better with other people. Neuroscience-derived avatars may also functions as models for some types of mental illness.