Sunday, November 07, 2004

Sims, A.I., and Online Writing Instruction

Sea-changes are already occurring in online writing instruction as A.I.-driven programs, video game-based simulations, and customizable avatar-driven chat complement and sometimes even supplant the threaded discussion boards, chat, peer-reviewed papers, file-sharing, asynchronous collaborative learning and assessments of the most popular learning management systems.

Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven programs are being incorporated in the writing curriculum in order the help students become more aware of grammar, spelling, and usage issues, as well as to prepare for standardized tests, such as the new machine-administered and graded essay section of the SAT test. Other AI-based programs include those designed to detect the used of published sources (potential plagiarism and academic honesty issues). These programs can be used in conjunction with conventional LMS-driven online programs, or can be used in hybrid courses that feature some online as well as some face-to-face instruction. Specific programs include automated writing tutors and automated essay scoring such as My Access! by Vantage Learning ( Plagiarism detection programs include ( Intellectual property theft can be detected by i-thenticate (

Integrating Automated Writing Assessment into Writing Instruction

Learners who are having difficulty with grammar, word usage, style, and other mechanics of writing can benefit from automated writing assessment. This is particularly useful for learners for whom English is a second language. Further, when combined with more creative activities, it can allow the instructor to focus on more customized activities. For example, the automated writing activities could be the equivalent of a writing lab, or the kind of language laboratory used in language instruction.

One of the most popular programs is MY Access! by Vantage Learning ( This is how they describe their product:

MY Access! provides more than 100 specific writing assignments and assesses the quality of the writing not just on a grade-level scale, but also in five domains of writing: focus & meaning, content & development, organization, language use & style, and grammar & mechanics. MY Access! gives detailed strategies and lesson plans for each of these specific areas. MY Access! keeps track of the learner’s writing over time to see how he or she is progressing in each area and tracks their improvement.

The drawback is that “canned” prompts (writing assignments) can be boring, and thus fairly demotivating. One way to avoid that is to have students share their experiences on a discussion board. Another way is to make the “canned prompts” relate to the more creative writing assignments to be read by the instructor. This provides scaffolding, and helps continue the trend of “learning by doing.” It also allows some questioning of the automated feedback.

Avatar-Centered Synchronous Group Chat (and Possible Guided Learning Activities)

The next step in valuable learning experiences using sims and AI has been to integrate customizable avatar-centered multi-player “rooms” for live chat, and multi-player video game-based simulations with opportunities for reflection, exchanging news and views with classmates, writing papers that are anchored in the sim or the avatar experience, and participating in peer reviews of papers. ( is an avatar and “world” provider, which allows the subscriber to customize the shape, costumes, hair, and general appearance of their characters. It even allows one to develop costume design, which has led to a cottage industry for a number of participants, who have developed their own clothing lines, then make them available for sale via e-shop and e-auction. In addition, individual players can decorate a dream home. Needless to say, these provide enormously entertaining and productive learning experiences, when situated and framed within a set of tasks and assessment rubrics.

The following screen shots from a “fan site” at demonstrates how players customize their characters, and how the dialogue shows up in the balloons. For the IM (instant messenger) generation, this is a very comfortable way to communicate. The key for the instructor is to make sure that the spaces are refereed and that learning activities are taking place. The instructor becomes the virtual facilitator

“Worlds” are customizable, as well as the characters. This provides opportunities for an instructor to create scenarios, and to facilitate activities that involve role-playing and negotiation. For courses in fields such as social work, psychology, human relations, and communication, such activities can help overcome the negative stereotypes associated with rigid text-and-static image online interactions.

For entrepreneurship and marketing classes, the fact that the designs are for sale is something to consider. For example, one subscriber has developed a line of fashion items which can be found and even purchased at Simlove Designs

Before thinking that this is a perfect place to take care of one’s Christmas list, it is important to take note that these fashions are for the sims, and that one cannot purchase the items with money, but must use “T$”s, which are earned in the simulation, in, and by other aspects of sim-commerce.

Black Dragon Boots: $T3400. is one of the most flexible of the customizable sim worlds, and requires a bit more planning on the part of the instructor than the courses that simply utilize an existing simulation video game.

Utilizing an existing simulation game requires different instructional strategies. For example, one can then require students to form teams and then compete against each other. Or, if they play individually, they can respond to a set of reflective questions on a discussion board, or in a forum in which individuals can share their experiences. For example, Small Ball Baseball is a free sim, downloadable onto a pc via a download site: The game gives players an opportunity to be a manager / owner and build a baseball team that will compete in leagues and tournaments worldwide.

Depending on the interests of the learners and the objectives of the course, free sim games can be utilized in a number of ways. Because the approach is problem-based, there are many aspects that can be analyzed, and the game can potentially be utilized in many types of classes. Perhaps the most universal use would be to apply it to a first-year composition class, where students could write a number of essays, ranging from process, extended definition, taking a position, to a full research paper.

Learning Strategies

How does the use of video-game based simulations, A.I.-based programs, and an integrative sim / learning management system approach accomplish learning goals? Many learning strategies are accommodated in this way that simply cannot be touched in any other way, even in face-to-face instruction.

---More identification takes place when one has a chance to role-play, particularly when they are able to create a persona, and they have choices in developing their virtual identity.

---Mastering semiotic domains gives rise to flexible thinking, and the development of a new “vocabulary” in terms of one’s new affinity group.

---In the virtual space, there is a psycho-social moratorium, that gives individuals the chance to act outside the bounds of their normal groups. Participants can take risks as they role-play, and their real-world limitations are lifted.

---Self-knowledge is enhanced through virtual, interactive role-play, particularly if it is guided by a mentor or facilitator, so that certain learning objectives are met. Learners become aware of their own abilities, tendencies, and patterns to approaching the world, particularly if some of their activities involved self-reflection.

---Situated learning makes connections to embodied experience, and thus connections to real life are maintained, making it a more dynamic and relevant experience.

---Key information is available “on demand” and delivered “just in time,” so that learners gain experience in acquiring information in that way.

---Culture is embodied in the learning experience and the learner gains knowledge and experience in negotiating the group environment.

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