How Imaginary Friends Can Create Real Connections

Instructional-technology specialist Jim Groom, a self-described “Edupunk.” Image credit: D’Arcy Norman. Link

Jim Groom is a bit of a legend in the world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The original Edupunk, he taught a MOOC class on digital storytelling, which was “not like any other MOOC” in terms of its structure (allowing the participants to tune in as they wish, rather than following a set schedule), openness (even a login is not required), and allowing class participants to create their own pathways.

In short, Jim is all about telling great stories and truly engaging students with the material rather than forcing them to stay engaged. I spoke with Jim about our work in connecting students taking online classes to each other using a matching algorithm, hoping to get advice on what we can do better. Jim’s first instinct was, “Have you heard of Netflix’s Max?”

I haven’t.

Turns out, Max is a goofy virtual assistant introduced in 2013 by Netflix. Max is “rumored to be the child of Siri and HAL 9000“ and helps Netflix users find new movies or TV shows to watch. As I thought about it, more examples came to mind. Remember Microsoft Word Assistants of early versions in the 90s? My favorite (of course) was a friendly dog of unidentified breed and an ever-wagging tail. There are more formal versions; take a look at Jenn, virtual assistant at Alaska Air, or Apple’s Siri, the sassiest and most sophisticated assistant on the list.

The great thing about online assistants is that many of them have personalities and stories to tell. They make internet users feel more social and connected. The downside, of course, is that these are still imaginary friends and do not provide an ultimate sense of community and belonging (although I’m sure the filmmaker of “Her”, a movie about a man who falls in love with his phone’s virtual assistant, would argue).

Why are Max, Siri, and Microsoft PaperClip interesting for our work in online education? We use matching algorithms to allow students taking online courses to form groups and work together on their final projects. One of the concerns in online education right now is student retention – very few students make it to the end of the course and earn the certificate of completion. Our hypothesis is that by working together in small groups, they will feel responsible to their teammates and will stay in the course.

Virtual assistants like Max can attract students to the site and provide a refreshingly personal experience, as students sign in. Jim recommended even creating different types of experiences – some goofy, some serious, all of them engaging – to see what students react to better. Ultimately, Max on Netflix is limited because he only connects people to resources (videos); Project Lever can do better since we’re connecting people to real, rather than imaginary friends.

So many interesting ideas to consider! Do you know of other good examples of “imaginary friends” that help create real connections?

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