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A Conversational Computer Character to Help Children Write Stories

SM Thesis, by Nick Montfort

Program in Media Arts and Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
May 5, 1998

This Web version omits footnotes and some figures.


A conversational computer character may improve students' story writing processes in ways existing software cannot. Writing stories is of great benefit to elementary students, but several factors make story writing difficult. Children comfortable with the interchange of spoken dialog cannot write as fluently without a tangible audience and the usual responses that support conversation. Software that allows a child to converse with a character could be an amusing and engaging way to help stimulate the production of stories. The conversational framework can provide a way for children to begin writing on the computer in a comfortable mode that is familiar from oral discourse and offers the additional support another speaker provides. A computer character with motivation and personality can also provide an example audience during the writing process.

To test whether story assistance software with a conversational computer character can be more educationally effective than software lacking such a character, two Macintosh programs were developed: EddieEdit, employing a conversational character who talks about planning and revision; and StoryStages, which offers identical planning and revision tips but without a conversational character. A two-week study tested both the usability of these programs and whether their educational interventions were effective. The story writing of three groups, one using EddieEdit, one StoryStages, and one a word processor, was compared. During the short time of the study there was little discernible improvement in writing ability and no statistically significant difference in improvement between the three groups, based on what they had written. Thus, examination of stories written at the beginning and end of the study did not provide support for the hypothesis. Answers on a final questionnaire did indicate that EddieEdit users had greater awareness of the writing process than those who used StoryStages, supporting the hypothesis. After the study both pieces of software were improved based on how the software was used by children in the study, and a Web version of Eddie was developed.

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