Marshall Soules: Cyborg Instructor
How he became posthuman...
The cyborg instructor project has been created to supplement the instructional work of Dr. Marshall Soules, Chair of Media Studies at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Marshall has been involved in online instruction since 1994, when he used switch-56 video-conferencing technology and web-based delivery of lectures to teach a long-distance course in Emerging Digital Technologies. In 2005, he continues to explore online instruction and concluded that he needed an avatar-the cyborg instructor-to help carry the instructional load. Clearly, there are some things an avatar can do better, and more consistently, than a flesh-based human.
So far, Marshall has been programmed to answer questions on media studies and related matters of interest to students in the Media Studies program at MalU. He's also agreed to answer some personal questions in case you want to know what makes him tick. Don't blame the avatar if it says something that offends you. Email Marshall at email@example.com with your concerns and questions.
The avatar is seen against a background of Marshall's photographic images of distressed posters and graffiti from cities around the world. These images are also projected onto him with some obvious symbolism: we learn in a highly-mediated environment where our subjective projections compete with the projections of the media. Marshall is a layer somewhere in all that collage of communication.
If you're interested in the technical details of the cyborg instructor, here's how it works: The cyborg instructor uses a combination of flash, PHP, and XML to respond properly to keyword responses. When a user enters a question into the flash interface, flash passes the variable into a PHP file which in turn loads the appropriate XML file and using the XPATH language pulls the response and sends the answer back to flash which loads the appropriate FLV file for the answer.
An important aspect of the Cyborg Instructor project is the content management system (CMS) because we want to keep him up to date. Here's how it works: The CMS system is used to provide an easy web based system to update the avatar. The system was designed in PHP 5 using XML to store and retrieve questions and file locations. The CMS system allows the user to upload new video files (FLV) and enter the question they wish to use. In turn, the CMS system then creates the new database question and recompiles the bot with the new information
As with many of the better things in life, the Cyborg Instructor is a collaborative effort. The questions, answers, and performance by Marshall Soules (March 2005) were captured into digital form by David Green and Courtnie Croft, taking the Digital Media Technology program under the supervision of Nathanael Dejager and Doug Stetar. Courtnie's responsibilities included the web interface and digital video editing. David, as project manager, handled all the backend coding: XML, PHP, MySQL etc. They were great to work with and the avatar would not be alive today without them.
The future is bright for cyborg instructors as artificial intelligence software like A.L.I.C.E. continues its development. In the future, we're likely to encounter avatars reading us the news (like Ananova), giving us advice (Ask Crystal), or providing directions in the Louvre or to the nearest police station. There is much work to be done by coders and writers alike to build these avatars who have a lot to teach us about how we see ourselves in the mirror of technology.
Any questions? Any answers?