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Work in Progress: The Study Buddy, a Virtual Tutorial Agent

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Computers in Education Poster Session

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1697.1 - 22.1697.7



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Paper Authors


Keith Garfield Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

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Dr. Garfield is an Assistant Professor in the department of Electrical, Computer, Software, and Systems Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His research interests include the use of virtual intelligent agents in educational and training settings.

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Work in Progress: The Study Buddy, a Virtual Tutorial AgentToday’s students have access to a bewildering amount of data brought to them via an astoundingarray of computational and communication technologies. Unfortunately, this unprecedentedaccess to information does not necessarily result in more effective learning. Ideally, studentswould explore this wealth of information independently, but their explorations are inhibited bythe lack of structure, time, and motivation.A potential solution is to provide virtual instructors or tutors to motivate and assist in student’sexploration of online information. To be effective, the tutors must engage the student’s attentionand encourage interaction. The virtual tutor must interact with students in the most natural andengaging fashion possible to maximize student engagement and motivation for exploration.Ideally, virtual tutors communicate in an open-ended conversational style using natural language.This paper describes a prototype virtual agent capable of natural language discussion of certainproperties of functions and relations. The paper identifies inherent problems involved in creatingsuch a technology, describes the solutions utilized for this project, and compares theseapproaches with other solutions found in the literature.The agent, named the Study Buddy, uses a natural language interface to accompany the studentin unguided exploration and discovery of course topics. The Study Buddy is capable ofproviding concept definitions, provide examples, respond to student questions, query studentunderstanding, and recommend additional web materials for reference. The Study Buddy isnovel in that it allows students to create their own examples to be used in the tutorial session.The framework used for knowledge representation and directing agent behaviors is intended tobe adaptable to new knowledge domains.The tutorial sessions are guided by a set of agent behaviors that map to specific course learningoutcomes. This reliance on learning outcomes is used to overcome two obstacles encountered innatural language interactions: overwhelming complexity and ambiguity of speech. Thesebehaviors allow reasonable reactions to student inquiries within the target subjects, and redirectconversation when students are off topic. The Study Buddy maintains a model of studentunderstanding of a topic to guide the tutorial session if the student does not wish to, or know howto, frame specific questions.The agent has been developed and tested for functionality, but is not yet deployed. Thus, nofield test data was acquired to assess the agent’s effectiveness in terms of motivating students toexplore classroom topics outside of the class. The work has been beneficial in establishing thefeasibility of the approach, identifying an architecture that may be used for more general coursetopics, and developing guidelines for effective use.

Garfield, K. (2011, June), Work in Progress: The Study Buddy, a Virtual Tutorial Agent Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18430

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