Pedagogical agent

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Pedagogical agents

Meaghan Lister, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Definitions and background

Pedagogical agents are animated life-like characters used in electronic learning environments with which learners can interact and have meaningful conversations (Veletsianos and Miller, 2008; Bowman, 2012; Theodoidou, 2011). They have human-like characteristics including emotions, reactivity and speech (Velesianos, 2010; Theodoidou, 2011) and coordinate speech and narration with gaze and gestures (Dunsworth and Atkinson, 2007).

Pedagogical agents are used in educational programs from preschool to university and serve in various helping roles such as virtual health coaches and information guides (Clarebout, Elen, and Johnson, 2002; Haake and Gulz, 2008). They can be used for many purposes including advising, tutoring, coaching, demonstrating, and modelling (Scroeder and Adesope, 2012; Mahmood and Ferneley, 2006) and as a learning companion or peer who encourages and motivates learners to put more effort into learning (Kim and Baylor, 2006; Yanghee and Baylor, 2006 ).

Pedagogical agents are designed to support learning and instruction in an electronic learning environment, (Veletsianos and Miller, 2008; Schroeder and Adesope, 2012) and can adapt their level of support to the individual needs of the learner (Clarebout et al., 2002). They can be used to guide learners to engage in learning activities (Lin, Chen, Wu, and Yeh, 2008).


A pedagogical agent creates an environment that mimics the human-like classroom social interaction (Kim and Baylor, 2006; Theodoidou, 2011; Phan, 2011) that is typically missing from electronic learning environments (Phan, 2011). “Using an animated pedagogical agent with verbal and non-verbal features fosters information processing because students naturally perceive the learning process as social and respond more engagingly” (Dunsworth and Atkinsons, 2007, p. 688). This interaction helps to create a positive learning environment (Bodenheimer et. al., 2009) and enhances learner engagement (Veletsianos and Miller, 2008).

In addition to creating a positive learning environment, pedagogical agents allow teachers to provide individualized instruction to learners that is tailored to the learners’ learning abilities, rate of learning, and needs (Mao and Li, 2010; Bowman, 2012; Morozov, Tanakov, and Bystrov, 2004). Pedagogical agents can scaffold learning and determine learning paths for students (Miao, Engler, Giemza, Weinbrenner, and Hoppe, 2012). They can explain content in an alternative manner, rephrase content, and provide diagrams, animations and text to support a student’s individual learning style (Mahmood and Ferneley, 2006). Unlike in an Internet search where learners must sift through information to locate exactly what they are looking for, with pedagogical agents, learners can pose questions and receive targeted answers similar to what they would receive from their classroom teacher (Bowman, 2012). Some learners are more comfortable conversing with a pedagogical agent than with their classroom teacher, which may result in learners posing questions of the pedagogical agents that they would not otherwise ask in the classroom (Hong, Chen, and Lan, 2012). This interaction between learner and pedagogical agents, reduced student anxiety about mathematics in grade seven and eight students (Van Eck, 2006).

Pedagogical agents are always available and, thus, minimize the limitation presented by large class sizes which can restrict the amount of time a teacher has available to assist individual students (Sahimi et al., 2010) and allow students the opportunity to access his or her own “teacher” at any time (Bowman, 2012). Feedback and coaching provided by pedagogical agents can be timely and instantaneous allowing students to work more effectively in an asynchronous environment and outside of the classroom (Sahimi et al., 2010).

In addition to convenient access, when combined with speech recognition software, pedagogical agents can tutor second-language learners providing them with an opportunity to practice their skills and receive feedback (Morton and Jack, 2005). Unlike humans, pedagogical agents do not tire or become frustrated with repeated prompting or reteaching, and can provide unlimited corrections and feedback to learners (Morton and Jack, 2005).


Not all learners benefit from or find pedagogical agents appealing in an electronic learning environment (Theodoidou, 2011). Just as some teachers and learners do not relate well to each other, some learners do not relate well to, and may stereotype some pedagogical agents depending on the agent’s given visible characteristics and the student’s learning style (Theodooidou, 2011; Veletsianos, 2010; Haake and Gulz, 2008). Some learners may find the presence of the pedagogical agent to be distracting (Sahimi et. al., 2010; Theodoidou, 2011; Dirken, Mishra, and Altermatt, 2005; Mahmood and Ferneley, 2006). Others may find that their learning style and needs are not met by the pedagogical agent, preferring instead to have information provided in a different format (Yu, Brown, and Billett, 2007). This preference increases design challenges and reduces the effectiveness of some agents for some learners (Yu, Brown, and Billett, 2007).

Because of the design challenges and complexity of pedagogical agents, development of courses and training using pedagogical agents requires significant expense, time and skill (Choi and Clark, 2006). Typically, classroom teachers do not have the skills to develop their own animated pedagogical agents to meet the needs of individual students (Hong et. al., 2012) therefore limiting the ability of teachers to use pedagogical agents for interventions. Choi and Clark argued that the same benefits obtained from using pedagogical agents may be gained from an alternative multimedia system that is less expensive and less time consuming to develop.

Pedagogical agents are constrained by programming and cannot replace a real teacher or a mentor (Bowman 2012). While attempts can be made to program non-verbal behaviours into pedagogical agents, typically these behaviours are simple or inappropriate for the situation (Mahmood and Ferneley, 2006). Unlike a real teacher who can judge how much feedback and guidance is appropriate for a given student, pedagogical agents point out to students their mistakes, reducing individual student reflection on a topic (Baylor, 2002).


Instructional Design – Pedagogical Agents and Tutors
Interactive Animated Pedagogical Agents - An Introduction to an Emerging Field
Pedagogical Agents
Pedagogical Agents on the Web
The role of pedagogical agents in scenario-based language e-learning: A case study

Works Cited

Baylor, A. (2002). Expanding preservice teachers’ metacogntive awareness of instructional planning through pedagogical agents. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(2), 5-22.

Bowman, C. D. (2012). Student use of animated pedagogical agents in a middle school science inquiry program. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(3), 359-375. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01198.x

Bodenheimer, B., Williams, B., Kramer, M. R., Viswanath, K., Balachandran, R., Belynne, K., & Biswas, G. (2009). Construction and evaluation of animated teachable agents. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12 (3), 191–205.

Choi, S., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Cognitive and affective benefits of an animated pedagogical agent for learning English as a second language. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 34(4), 441-466.

Clarebout, G., Elen, J., & Johnson, W. (2002). Animated Pedagogical Agents: An Opportunity to be Grasped?. Journal of Educational Multimedia & Hypermedia, 11(3), 267-286.

Dirkin, K., Mishra, P., & Altermatt, E. (2005). All or nothing: Levels of sociability of a pedagogical software agent and its impact on student perceptions and learning. Journal of Educational Multimedia & Hypermedia, 14(2), 113-127.

Dunsworth, Q. and Atkinsons, R. (2007). Fostering multimedia learning of science: Exploring the role of an animated agent’s image. Computers and Education, 49(3), 677-690.

Haake, M., & Gulz, A. (2008) Visual stereotypes and virtual pedagogical agents. Journal of Educational Technology and Society. 11(4), 1-15.

Hong, Z., Chen, Y., & Lan, C. (2012). A courseware to script animated pedagogical agents in instructional material for elementary students in English education. Computer Assisted Language Learning. doi: 10.1080/09588221.2012.733712

Kim, Y & Baylor, A. (2006). A social-cognitive framework for pedagogical agents as learning companions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54(6), 569-596.

Lin, Y., Chen, M., Wu, T, & Yeh, Y. (2008). The effectiveness of a pedagogical agent-based learning system for teaching word recognition to children with moderate mental retardation. British Journal of Education Technology, 39(4), 715-720. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00747.x

Mahmood, K. & Ferneley, E. (2006). The use of animated agents in e-learning environments: An exploratory, interpretive case study. Research in Learning Technology, 14(2), 153-168.

Mao, X. and Li, Z. (2010). Agent based affective tutoring systems: A pilot study. Computers and Education, 55, 202-208.

Miao, Y., Engler, J., Giemza, A., Weinbrenner, S., & Hoppe, U. (2012). Development of a process-oriented scaffolding agent in an open-ended inquiry learning environment. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 7(2), 105-128.

Morozov, M., Tanakov, A., and Bystrov, D. (2004). A team of pedagogical agents in multimedia environment for children. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 7 (2), 19-24.

Morton, H. and Jack, M. (2005). Scenario-based spoken interaction with virtual agents. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 18(3), 171-191.

Phan, H. (2011). A cognitive multimedia environment and its importance: A conceptual model for effective e-learning and development. International Journal on E-Learning, 10(2), 199-221.

Sahimi, S., Zain, F., Kamar, N., Samar, N.,Rahman, Z., Majid, O., Atan, H.,…Luan, W. (2010). The pedagogical agent in online learning: Effects of the degree of realism on achievement in terms of gender. Contemporary Education Technology, 1(2), 175-185.

Schroeder, N. & Adesope, O. (2012). A case for the use of pedagogical agents in online learning environments. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology. 1(2), 43-47.

Theodoidou, K. (2011). Learning Spanish with “Laura”: The effects of a pedagogical agent. Educational Media International, 48(4), 335-351. doi: 10.1080/09523987.2011.632280

Van Eck, R. (2006). The effect of contextual pedagogical advisement and competition on middle-school students’ attitude towards mathematics and mathematics instruction using a computer-based simulation game. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teacher, 25(2), 165-195.

Veletsianos, G. (2010). Contextually relevant pedagogical agents: Visual appearance, stereotypes, and first impressions and their impact on learning. Computers and Education. 55, 576-585.

Veletsianos, G., & Miller, C. (2008). Conversing with pedagogical agents: A phenomenological exploration of interacting with digital entities. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 969-986. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00797.x

Yanghee, K., and Baylor, A.(2006). Pedagogical Agents as Learning Companions: The Role of Agent Competency and Type of Interaction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54(3), 223-243. doi: 10.1007/s11423-006-8805-z

Yu, J., Brown, D., & Billett, E. (2007). Design of virtual tutoring agents for a virtual biology experiment. European Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 1.