The possibilities for people to learn using the Internet and related technologies are numerous and exciting. Yet while individuals who have the skills to navigate, locate, create and make use of these resources for learning can benefit significantly: there are many others who are struggling to use new technologies to learn despite having numerous motivations for doing so.
This project aims to evaluate the feasibility of a computer-based digital tool - the Learning Companion (LC) - intended to help adults whose engagement with learning is tentative or hard to sustain make productive use of the Internet for identifying, planning and achieving their own projects of learning.
The LC is a computer-based conversational agent - in effect, an animated speaking character on a computer screen - that stays with the user over a period of time and gets to 'know' the learner. The LC will be designed to give practical support, guidance and focus to the independent learning activities of adults who wish to study topics of their own choice at home using a computer. The LC will be programmed to provide users with direct instruction and practice in appropriate computer and Internet applications.
However, apart from teaching selected IT skills, it will not be programmed to teach any domain-specific content knowledge - its educative role will be in providing responsive and enabling interactions that lead learners towards taking control over their own learning.
The cutting-edge technology on which the LC will be based already exists and has been developed and refined as part of the Companions Project. At this stage, the primary focus of the research is to conduct a 'Wizard of Oz' study: an experimental procedure which elicits data of how human subjects engage in dialogue with computers. This approach will support the technological development of the LC and to explore the following key questions:
How do individuals engage in simulated human-machine conversations for educational purposes?
How is the LC perceived by the target group (eg is it useful, acceptable, usable and attractive)?
Can the LC provide responsive and enabling interactions that facilitate learning without having to teach any domain-specific content knowledge?
How does the LC actually support and augment processes of learning?
This research is currently supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund at the University of Oxford.