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magazine home > archives > spring 2001 > features

A super computer that can carry on a conversation with a human may sound like an idea from a galaxy far, far away. But researchers at The U of M have developed a computer with a "talking head" that may eventually improve and transform our educational system in a dramatic way.

Talking Heads
by Olivia Miller

University of Memphis tutor Marco is not a normal teacher. A student's garbled answer to a question elicits a puzzled look from Marco, much like it would from most professors. But that's about the only normal thing about Marco. For this teacher has no body.

Student using AutoTutor

AutoTutor's Marco, designed by U of M researchers, "talks" to students and helps them find answers to their questions through individualized tutoring sessions

Marco, an innovative computer "tutor" designed by U of M researchers, has the ability to express emotion, give feedback and carry on a conversation with students. Dubbed AutoTutor, this "talking head" simulates the conversation of a human tutor, facilitating interaction between the learner and the tutor. Studies show it could eventually have a profound effect on learning.

"This is the future of human computer interaction," says Dr. Arthur C. Graesser, co-director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems and director of the Center for Applied Psychological Research at The U of M. "If you project out five or 10 years from now, we are not going to have keyboards. We are going to be having conversations with computers, just like people have face-to-face conversations."

Meet the Tutor

How AutoTutor works is quite simple. The "talking head" produces a question on a screen. Students answer the question, and the computer gestures and talks in response to the student's typed answers. Interaction between the computer and the student progresses accordingly with Marco cajoling the student into the proper line of inquiry.

Graesser says AutoTutor will eventually improve and transform the educational system since it can provide more detailed and tailored tutoring than humans can sometimes provide.

"One of the problems with our educational system is that the lectures in classrooms are skewed more toward shallow knowledge rather than deep knowledge," says Graesser. "This talking head or tutoring system will assist students at deeper levels. When you get into deeper levels of knowledge, you need to have more conversation to clarify things. But this can be very tedious for a tutor or a human being to do. Certainly in a classroom a teacher can't be answering hundreds of questions. You need a computer to do that. That is what AutoTutor can do. It can give a student more tailored tutoring and deeper learning.

"AutoTutor provides more 'conversational scaffolding' for deeper levels of knowledge," says Graesser. "For instance, when your car breaks down, if you have a smart person like a tutor around who can explain things to you at critical points, you would do much better at repairing it. The same thing with AutoTutor. A teacher can't be holding 30 conversations at the same time, whereas this computer can."

Within the academic world, AutoTutor has other applications. It can evaluate students' paragraph-length answers to questions "almost as good as graduate assistants can," says Graesser.

What sets the program apart from other educational software is its ability to think and hold a conversation. "AutoTutor asks questions and comprehends the answers students type into the keyboard, then it evaluates the quality of the students answers," Graesser says. He adds that U of M researchers are currently "teaching" AutoTutor to learn from the learning process it engages.

Marco, the AutoTutor  
Graesser believes that computers such as AutoTutor will free up teachers to handle more creative and difficult material that requires human expertise

Birth of a Brainchild

The AutoTutor program is the brainchild of an interdisciplinary team effort led by Graesser. It is nearing the end of its development under a $900,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant begun in 1997 and concluding this August. It began after The U of M Psychology Department received one of 23 grants (out of 384 proposals) for funding. Only six institutions are doing research in this area.

"There's a small club of academic people doing the conversational agents," explains Graesser, principal investigator for the proposal. "The MIT Media Lab is one, North Carolina State, University of Southern California and Northwestern University are working on it, and then there are people in industry."

Graesser has secured more than $5 million in grants for The U of M and was the 1999 Eminent Faculty Award winner.

For the past three years, more than 30 U of M people - 10 faculty, 15 graduate students and five undergraduates in psychology, computer science and education - have worked to design and build AutoTutor. The Tutoring Research Group includes Drs. Dipankar Dasgupta, Stan Franklin (BS '59), Max Garzon, Barry Gholson, Xiangen Hu, Robert Kosma, Roger Kreuz, Bill Marks and Phillip Wolff, all of The U of M, and Natalie Person (MS '91, PhD '94) of Rhodes College. Co-director of the institute, Franklin is considered a leading authority on artificial intelligence and is also a past Eminent Faculty award winner.

Why Not?

While AutoTutor has been used successfully in the classroom, it has other uses too. The project has moved into the realm of conceptual physics as a tutor named WHY2. "We have a $4 million grant from the Office of Naval Research partnering with the University of Pittsburgh in building this conversation-based tutoring system that can be used for training," says Graesser. The five-year WHY2 project started last May and will be finished in 2005.

Another partnership spurred by AutoTutor has been one formed with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which includes ThoughtWare Technologies, a Memphis-based company addressing corporate knowledge-management needs. Graesser says this partnership will build a Web facility where military people explore the ethics of using human subjects in research.

The research has commercial applications as well. Graesser and U of M researchers have teamed with the Memphis-based software firm Challenger Corp. to develop an Appendicitis Diagnostic Assistant to help in the educational and training needs of more than 340,000 practicing American primary care and hospital-based physicians. "That agent performed very well - it exceeded the typical accuracy of doctors in several formal clinical studies," says Graesser.

AutoTutor and similar programs may have a profound effect on the educational system. "Future computers will be replacing teachers who simply promote shallow learning," Graesser says. "But teachers need not worry about being replaced. I believe that in the future computers such as AutoTutor will free up teachers to handle much more creative and difficult material that requires human expertise. Deep understanding will always require a human teacher. But conversational computers such as AutoTutor will make a big difference in the educational system of the future."

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