Amy helps welcome new hires to the AMA

Keen students can bring an apple to class for their teacher, but what does an online student bring a virtual teacher?

The Alberta Motor Association (AMA) has added a virtual agent named Amy to its e-learning program that all new hires must take as part of their orientation. Developed by Edmonton’s CodeBaby, the online teacher will help keep learners engaged as they make their way through the course.

The AMA has 1,200 full time and 400 to 500 part time employees at 17 centres across Alberta. Gerald Mykytiuk, AMA’s education and development manager, said all new hires were originally given a thick binder of material, but it was tough to get through and difficult to keep up to date.

It made sense to turn to e-learning.

Subsequently, a suite of online training programs was purchased from Thomson NETg. The updating issues were solved, but there was still a high volume of material to go through.

“What was missing was a way for the (learner) to be engaged, it was pretty much just reading and we felt we could do better,” said Mykytiuk.

Retention was an issue, and Mykytiuk felt a virtual agent would help keep people interested – presenting some of the key points in a more engaging way and making the e-learning process more interactive.

A video product called Camtasia Studio was considered along with CodeBaby. Technical considerations, however, worked on CodeBaby’s favour, Mykytiuk said. “CodeBaby has much smaller files and has a much smaller impact on our bandwidth, which we’re already stretching to our limits now,” said Mykytiuk.

AMA began its pilot with Amy in late April, writing a script, designing a character, recording audio clips and installing the program. There were a number of challenges, Mykytiuk said, including tailoring it to work on AMA’s disparate network of computers running different platforms. Some computers needed to be upgraded and sound cards installed to enable the audio component.

“We also had a number of security protocols we had to work with, because CodeBaby is an ActiveX-enabled system and our network blocks ActiveX,” said Mykytiuk. “Our solution was providing a one-time security certificate for the CodeBaby player when it was installed on everyone’s machine.”

To date, 58 people have learned with Amy, and the feedback has been quite encouraging, Mykytiuk said. The pilot will run until late October, when the AMA will evaluate the results and consider an enterprise-wide deployment.

Online help agents are one of the more common applications for virtual agents, but e-learning is a rapidly growing market for CodeBaby, according to its marketing director Doug Johnson. In addition to AMA, CodeBaby has created e-learning agents for Fountain Tire and the Government of Alberta.

“There’s definitely a body of theory out there about the advantage of having an interactive, face to face, online virtual assistant while going through an online curriculum,” said Johnson.

He said the agent grabs the user’s attention, and users are more likely to finish the course and retain the information.

From a technical point of view, Johnson said there’s no difference between designing a virtual agent for a help desk and an e-learning application. And once the system is in place, clients can do updates or modifications on their own by using CodeBaby Production Studio, he added.

In addition to e-learning and help desks, CodeBaby sees e-commerce as the next growth area for virtual agent technology, aiming to cut the high drop-out rate in e-commerce transactions by building trust with the customer, and helping them through the purchase process, Johnson said.

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