Computer Immediacy and Software Agents
This was an independent reading I did in Summer, 2007, with Ed Counts. I had been focusing a lot on the concept of technology – be it hardware like a screen/monitor or software like a program running on an operating system – as being the interface between content and learner. It’s essentially a lens, and, like a lens, it can either bring the subject material into sharper focus if it’s a good one, or it can hopelessly blur it if it’s a poor one.
Immediacy, in this sense, is essentially a measure of the learner’s level of engagement with the subject material. If your software is good, the learner is thinking solely about the instruction, and not so much about the medium that’s being used to convey that instruction. We delved into this topic many times when we’d use the Internet for class discussion. Initially, using a novel new interface for web chat posed a barrier to discourse. For a while, conversation topics were operational: how do we handle turn-taking with no visual cues like we have in face-to-face interaction? Until the interface became familiar, we were to a degree limited in our ability to communicate on a high level by being novices with the software. This would represent a lower level of immediacy with regards to discussion of the intended topic.
As it happens, there have been extensive studies of how software design affects immediacy. For my study, I read research (I’ll have to find my notes) performed at universities in Finland and Italy, among others, which talked about using software “agents” to facilitate immediacy. An “agent” is basically a software persona, a “person” in the program that interacts with the learner.
One study, in particular, stood out to me. A health and fitness study handed out a small, PDA-like device to participants, which contained a software agent with a graphical representation – it had a face, eyes, etc, and was programmed to provide emotional feedback. If you told the agent you achieved your goal, it smiled and gave affirmative statements. A failure might be met with concern and consoling. When the study period had run its course, a number of participants asked to be able to keep their PDAs, because they had developed an emotional rapport with the software.
It’s this sense of using software to encourage engagement/immediacy that lead me to my readings. Good software design can actually enhance motivation, while poor design can create dissonance, and frustrate the learner. It’s a framework I’ve attempted to be mindful of when considering how we create instruction using technology: it’s not just a flashy box for us to pour teaching into. We have to consider the “box” itself, and how the medium itself plays a role in the learner’s experience.