The Office of the Secretary of Defense funded Alelo and Aptima to develop ALLEARN, an adaptive learning architecture that helps people learn foreign languages more rapidly and develop higher levels of proficiency. ALLEARN exploits advances in artificial intelligence to create rich interactive learning experiences that are optimized for each learner.
Below is our interview with Dr. W. Lewis Johnson, President and CEO of Alelo:
Q: Could you tell us something more about Alelo?
A: Alelo was founded in 2005 as a spinout of the University of Southern California. From its very beginning Alelo has been using artificial intelligence and gaming technologies to address critical learning problems. Over 200,000 U.S., Australian and NATO forces have trained to date with Alelo-created immersive, role-playing courses. Successes include the first Marine battalion to return from Iraq without any combat fatalities partially due to learning Arabic language and culture with an Alelo course. The U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program funded Alelo to develop Web-based learning technology for cultural awareness, which generated $23M in course development revenue and was published as an Air Force SBIR success story.
We see a growing gap between the skills workers have and the skills employers want and need and we working to address that gap. In particular we have been focusing on the interpersonal skills –communication, teamwork, collaboration, cultural sensitivity – that are so critical to organizational success.
Q: What approach do you use?
A: We create computer simulations in which learners can role-play different scenarios in conversations with animated characters. We use speech and AI technology so the characters understand what learners say, and respond as people would in real life. We call our approach Virtual Role-Play. This approach has proven to be very effective at helping learners develop skills quickly and retaining them over time.
For example, the first Marine battalion that returned from Iraq without any combat fatalities learned Arabic language and culture in one of our immersive games. Both the Marines and the Iraqi people they interacted with could tell that it made a big difference – it helped them build relationships with the local people and made them more effective in carrying out their missions.
Q: Where did the concept of ALLEARN begin?
A: The Department of Defense came to us with a problem. They have 40,000 positions that require proficiency in a foreign language, and they can’t fill 70% of those positions with people who have the necessary skills. They were aware of our work and invited us to make a dent in this problem. Alelo and our partner Aptima received a $3M contract to develop and test a first-of-a-kind concept to help military personnel develop foreign-language proficiency very quickly and sustain it over time.
Q: How does ALLEARN work?
A: ALLEARN engages learners in interactive learning activities that develop their communication skills on a mobile device or regular computer. As they do this the system analyzes responses, and collects analytics on the key metrics of spoken language proficiency – fluency, accuracy, and complexity of language. It captures these analytics in a central learner record store employing learning tool interoperability standards. Learners and instructors can view these metrics to assess progress and focus their learning activities. We use data mining technology to analyze learner progress and optimize learning paths, so learners develop skills more quickly and retain them better.
Q: Could you explain the most prominent advantages of ALLEARN?
A: Because learners practice their skills in simulations of real-world situations, ALLERAN makes it easier for them to transfer their learning to the real world. Our approach lets learners decide for themselves what to say and do, instead of reading canned options . This promotes higher-level learning. The ALLEARN approach lets people practice anywhere and anytime, for continuous improvement. It’s scalable yet personalized to the needs of each learner.
Q: More generally, how do you see the artificial intelligence landscape developing, and where do you place yourself in the industry?
A: AI is developing rapidly, and risks making many routine jobs obsolete. But AI can also help people learn and develop, so they can take advantage of the new jobs that AI and automation make possible.
AI is starting to have a significant effect on digital learning products through adaptive learning systems that mine big data. But we see much more that AI can do. It makes possible much richer interactive learning experiences. We also see potential for AI to accelerate the content development process, through systems that automatically develop learning content from examples. This is where we are focusing our effort.
Q: What can we expect from you in 12 months?
A: We intend to expand on the ALLEARN work to create a platform that people around the world can use to create and deliver content that employs our virtual role-play methods. We call the new platform Alelo NexGen. It will have three components. Alelo Enskill is a run-time player that delivers content on a variety of devices, using HTML5. The Alelo Authoring Suite will provide tools for creating content, and will incorporate AI technology to speed the authoring process. Finally, we plan to launch an Alelo Store in which developers can share assets and learning content, and gives learners access to highly engaging learning content. The first versions of Enskill and Alelo Author will be available in the next 12 months.