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W&M professors hone mixed-reality training to promote diverse hiring

Jason Chen has been finding uses for avatars for years, and recently found another way they can help humans.

Chen, associate professor of education at William & Mary, is working with Professor of Theatre and Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies Francis Tanglao Aguas on a professional development curriculum. The pair is halfway through a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create the program.

The goal is to design and build a professional development curriculum that is highly adaptable to an individual’s particular institutional context. Chen and Aguas have already developed mixed-reality simulations, and have recruited a sample of 30 diversity fellows from various universities. The fellows will work in teams of three to identify gatekeeping mechanisms that impede the ability of their particular institutions to recruit, retain and include underrepresented faculty and students in the geosciences, according to the grant description for “EAGER: Networking Faculty Seeds for Collective Change in the Geosciences.”

{{youtube:small:right|_BofiRjUq3E, Mixed-reality simulation}}

Chen used a prior NSF grant to build the simulations as a proof of concept and ran it with 30 geoscientists from 2017 to 2019 . This program involves avatars on a screen interacting in real time with the person participating in the training.

Thirty members of W&M’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business community participated last spring. That project required Chen and Aguas to create new simulations for a business school context and allowed them to glean valuable feedback from the participants.

Chen and Aguas held a kickoff meeting with the approximately 25 NSF Seeding Diversity Fellows Oct. 29.

“The goal here is to teach seven geoscience researchers how to build and coordinate social networks to create structural changes in their geoscience departments so that their departments are more diverse, equitable and inclusive places,” Chen said. “What we're teaching them is how to advocate for DEI — and it gets to micro-level decision making.”

For example, small things that are decided, said and done during debates by hiring committees in deciding who to invite for a campus interview create the climate, Chen said.

“We've created these virtual reality simulations, which are a really curious mixture of artificial intelligence and human intelligence,” Chen said. “And the technology merges those intelligences.”

Artificial intelligence helps to create a hyper-realistic social situation where the learners feel like they are actually face-to-face with multiple colleagues in a university setting. But human actors are actually speaking and interacting verbally with the learner in real time.  This human intelligence is required for the simulation’s conversational realism and immersion.

“The whole puppet show that we've created allows for the human conversational intelligence to take the conversation in the way it needs to,” Chen said. “But that allows the artificial intelligence to create the illusion that you're speaking to your colleagues about who to hire.”

This is part of where theatre comes into play, because having live actors participate in every one of the simulations can get quite expensive, according to Aguas.

“Human beings can read the room,” Aguas said. “But there are things that the human beings cannot do, that the avatars allow us to do, because of the limitations of funding.”

An example of one of the sessions shows the live, in-person learner pushing for more details and advocating for a Latina job candidate with three avatar committee members on screen. This type of simulation allows the participant to experience what that type of conversation would be like in an actual, in-person setting and to get comfortable with how to have those types of discussions, Aguas said.

Chen said that from a psychological perspective, it’s advantageous to use the avatars because research has found that all parties involved have an easier time taking risks while communicating through a virtual medium than they would with real people. The technology also allows actors and learners to engage in real-time from anywhere on Earth where they have access to an internet connection.

“Instead of scripted dialogue, we provide our learners scenarios with given circumstances,” Aguas said. “So, if you look at it from the perspective of the learner, it's like participating in an improv where you know the parameters and objectives of the scene, but you have no idea what the other people will throw at you.”

Professional actors participating as avatar characters are not only theater people, but they also are trained specialists in the advocacy at hand, he added.

A performance concept called theatre of the oppressed that was pioneered by Augusto Baol and rooted in Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed is also a major part of the interaction, according to Aguas. The immersive experience allows the learners to create a memorable experience by feeling.

“They are in a scene, they are ‘acting,’ which is life, when a microaggression takes place, or where they have to fight for someone to be even considered,” Aguas said. “An online exam, no matter how interactive, will not give you the lived experience of empathy, of compassion, of being in someone else's shoes or being a witness to discrimination.

“Because even if you forget the words you used, or what exactly happened, you will never forget seeing a fellow human get hurt in front of you, even if they are an avatar.”

The saying and doing are the difficult parts of the process that the training is designed to help with, according to Chen.

“What we're trying to teach people is: Here's how you do it,” Chen said. “Here's how you say something. Here's how you do something. Here are some ways that you can go about that.”

The current phase is using what's called social network analysis to help participants identify allies by knowing what resources are needed to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in their departments and who holds the keys to those resources, Chen said. That includes how to find, make and develop relationships so that needed resources can be deployed.

“That's the social political aspect of creating diversity, equity and inclusion change that nobody teaches you except for in this program,” Chen said.