Young children are prodigious learners with powerful learning skills. However, they are also selective learners – their learning is gated by the social context, specifically the use of social learning cues called ‘ostensive signals’ that adult partners use to indicate their availability and intention to communicate relevant information to the child. These ostensive signals include eye contact, using the baby’s name and child-directed speech. Asst Prof Leong has previously found that these social signals have a powerful effect on the brains of infants, and can act to synchronise the cortical neuronal oscillations of the child (markers of neural receptivity) with that of their adult partner. Therefore, ostensive signals help babies’ brains to ‘get in sync’ with the adults’ so that the child is ready to learn when the adult is ready to engage.
This explains why children learn best in a live social interactive context, because adults use these ostensive signals spontaneously to nudge the child’s brain into a learning-optimal state of synchrony. Conversely, traditional digital on-screen media such as videos and TV – although attention grabbing - are typically ineffective in promoting learning in young children. However, in the current digital age - and further exacerbated by social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic - the information that children receive for learning is increasing being delivered online rather than in-person. This project therefore, is a timely examination of how natural social cues for learning may be integrated into online digital learning media.
Specifically, the project will develop a socially intelligent AI digital avatar that can interact naturalistically with children, by employing the same social learning cues that human adults use to promote learning. This technology is intended to be used in online and digital teaching programmes for young children, in order to provide a well-curated, psychologically-validated, and socially-healthy introduction to early digital learning that can be integrated sustainably into family life, and that will complement rather than disrupt face-to-face social connections.