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Athabasca University

Dr. Bob Heller

Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, Associate Professor, Psychology



I joined the Psychology Department at Athabasca University in 2001 but I have been a tutor for AU since 1989.

I obtained my PhD in Experimental Psychology from the University of Alberta in 1992 with a research interest in the changes in memory and language associated with normal and pathological aging. Although I continue to have a strong interest in cognition and aging, since my arrival at AU as faculty, my research focus has shifted to the role of technology in the teaching of psychology at a distance. In particular, I became interested in conversational agents.

Conversational agents are computer programs that use natural language and artificial intelligence in web-based exchanges with human users. Conversational agents, AKA as chat agents or chatbots, can be designed to serve a number of different purposes and many major businesses are deploying animated conversational agents on their web pages as virtual assistants or web guides. For example, Lingubot, a commercially available chatbot technology, lists the BBC, Lloyds TSB, Sharp, and IKEA, as their customers (See

The use of conversational agents in distance education is surprisingly sparse in spite of their potential to engage and motivate students, two features that are traditionally problematic in distance education. Kerly, Hall and Bull (2006) argue that the integration of conversational agents with intelligent tutor systems may provide a means to open learner modeling in which the system's model of the user's knowledge is revealed and shared with the user in order to bring about deeper learner reflection. Similarly, Johnson et al. (2000) argue that the combination of intelligent tutor systems with animated natural language interface agents give rise to new type of interface called Animated Pedagogical Agents or APAs. Hadwin, Winne, & Nesbit (2005) identified APAs as an important new research field at the "juncture of Human Computer Interaction and educational psychology".


Our interest in conversational agents began in 2002 with a quest to simulate the most well-known figure in psychology, Sigmund Freud. At the time, chatrooms were peaking in popularity and we felt that famous psychologists could be used to populate our notoriously vacant chatrooms. An examination of the agent software available led us to AIML or Artificial Intelligence Markup Language which was used to create ALICE, a multiple award winning chatbot (See Loebner Contest) and progenitor of numerous modified clones on Pandorabots, a website with over 20,000 freely hosted AIML bots (

The development and organization of Freudbot's knowledge was generally based on narrative and psycholinguistic theories. Freudbot's knowledge was organized by topic. Each topic consisted of 3 or more units that together formed a narrative like story. Based on psycholinguistic theories, units were structured to invite leading questions from the users that would trigger subsequent units. Ideally, users could advance through the stories by simply following the rules of conversation. In addition, we also created two broad types of content. Theoretical content consisted of the explanations, definitions, and description of various theories and constructs. Autobiographical content consisted of the biographical events associated with all stages of Freud's life.

These design principles were used to develop a Freudbot prototype and a series of studies were carried out over the next 5 years leading to a number of publications.

In 2008, we began to explore the role of visual information and created an animated Freudbot using Haptek character animation software. Interest in animated agents stems from the work of Lester, Johnson & colleagues on Animated Pedagogical Agents. According to Johnson et al. "APAs present two key advantages over earlier work; they increase the bandwidth of communication between students and computers and they increase the computer's ability to engage and motivate students" (p2). It is further assumed that these two features can ultimately be used to improve learning outcomes and experiences. Lester et al. (1997) refer to these predictions as the 'persona effect' based on their findings that the mere presence of an animated agent had a strong positive effect on learner perceptions of the learning experience.

Currently, we are looking more broadly at the visual landscape and extending the simulation to include Freudbot's virtual environment. Using the immersive environment of Second Life, Freudbot has been 'attached' to an avator and is currently residing in an office on Athabasca Island in Second Life. Linden scripts have been developed to control & monitor the avator's behaviour in relation to human user input. We are also working to replicate Freud's office as it existed in the early 20th century.

Recent Publications

Heller, R.B. & Procter, M. (2011). Embedded and embodied intelligence: Virtual actors on virtual stages. In S Graf, F Lin, Kinhsuk, R & R. McGreal (Eds.) Intelligent and Adaptive Learning Systems: Technology Enhanced Support for Learners and Teachers. Athabasca University Press.

Heller, R.B. & Procter, M. (2010). Animated pedagogical agents and immersive worlds: Two worlds colliding. In G Veletsianos (Ed.) Using Emerging Technologies in Distance Education. Athabasca University Press.

Veletsianos, G., Heller, R., Overmeyer, S., & Procter, M.. (2009). Conversational agents in virtual worlds: Bridging disciplines. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1).

Danforth, D., Procter, M., Heller, R., Chen, R., & Johnson, M. (2009). Development of Virtual Patient Simulations for Medical Education. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 2(3), 4-11.

Heller, R., Dobbs, B. & Strain, L. (2009). Video programming for individuals with Dementia: Assessing cognitive congruence. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, 24(2), 122-128.

Heller, R.B. & Procter, M. (2009). Animated pedagogical agents: The effect of visual information on a historical figure application. International Journal of Web-based Learning and Teaching Technologies, 4(1), 54-65.

Updated May 01 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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