Help! User assistance and HCI

XIV.1 January + February 2007
Page: 43
Digital Citation

My learning assistant

Sachin Patil, Kay Howell

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Advanced information technologies offer hope of reshaping learning through interactive games and simulations. Highly interactive simulations and synthetic game environments place the student in cognitive disequilibrium by presenting obstacles to goals, contradictions, and theoretical dilemmas. The success of some video games, including Civilization IV, the Sims, and Roller Coaster Tycoon, has demonstrated that games can teach higher-order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change.

Learning often improves when students are stimulated to ask questions and when there are facilities for receiving timely, relevant, correct, and informative answers [1]. Unfortunately, student questions are rare in most learning environments [2]. Interactive video game environments share many characteristics of learning environments that have been shown to stimulate curiosity and sincere, information-seeking questions.

back to top  Creating Game-Based Learning Environments

The objective of educational game designers should be to create learning environments with compelling challenges that motivate the game player to seek and acquire knowledge to succeed at the challenges. To take advantage of the player's motivation to acquire knowledge, game designers should provide user assistance that can answer questions whenever they are asked, and that is capable of delivering quick, correct, relevant, and informative answers. The user assistance should also provide hints about how to ask questions in a way that elicits the desired answer. A key design challenge in such learning environments is incorporating question-asking interfaces that stimulate learning beyond what is required for success in the game along with question-answering (Q&A) capabilities as an integral aid to winning the game.

back to top  Asking Questions Within Game Flow

In game-based interactive learning environments, a well-designed tutorial can handle most game-mechanic questions, such as, "How does the game work?" or "How do I get points?" Game-mechanic questions, while important in terms of game-play experience, do not advance the educational objectives of the game. Players prefer to know more about the subject domain on which the game story is based. In this particular case, beginners may ask simple "what is" questions, such as "What is a red blood cell?" Alternatively, some learners may have deeper comprehension questions about the way in which game objects perform some kind of action or the action itself in the game: "How does a macrophage identify harmful bacteria?"

Many interfaces are designed for question-asking. Most search engines do not support question-modeling, and there is no direct way to handle question context in the search queries. The painstaking task of locating a piece of relevant information from hundreds of documents retrieved by search engines can break the game flow. FAQ and P&Q (point & query) break down when there is a mismatch between available questions on the system and actual questions that users want to ask. It will be frustrating for learners if their natural language questions with keyboard input are not interpreted correctly and if incorrect answers are produced.

back to top  Creating the Best Fit with Guided Cooperative Questioning

Our main design challenge is to determine which interface is best for game-based interactive-learning environments. We developed an approach of context-sensitive assistance that combines the features of multiple question-asking interfaces and tested it with some users.

My Learning Assistant (My LA) provides a set of tools for question-asking and -answering to support an activity of knowledge construction within game-based learning environments. (Please visit The question-asking service is conceptualized around a cognitive strategy known as guided cooperative questioning, in which a set of thought-provoking questions is presented that learners with varying cognitive abilities can modify to generate their own specific questions on the material being studied [3]. The answering service uses context information passed by the game to answer players' natural language questions.

As shown in Figure 1, the component-based architecture of the system provides game developers with flexibility in how to integrate the question-asking and -answering services into the game. Any or all of the question-asking interfaces are options, based on the instructional design for the game. Game designers and instructional designers decide on the question-asking interfaces the game will use and the answer variables (text, audio, images, video, read more, etc.) that will be displayed. The designers must carefully select the game engine with good support for text processing, GUI widgets, and multimedia features. Based on these decisions, the game programmer and artists have a great deal of freedom in designing the look and feel of the interface.

The authoring tool organizes and stores context variables in a separate XML file. These variables provide information such as which challenge level the player has achieved, the player's expertise level in terms of the subject domain, and temporal and spatial attributes related to the current game play. The context variables are set within the game by the game programmer and passed to the Q&A engine. The Q&A engine reads the variables to provide answers tailored to support specific learning goals. For example, the answer to "What do white blood cells do?" may be different when asked at challenge level 1 than when asked at challenge level 2. The instructional designers should make the decisions regarding where and when to set context variables, and this information should factor in when constructing the knowledge base to help improve answer-retrieval performance.

back to top  Evaluating My LA

We evaluated a simplified version of the My LA tools in Spring 2006 with 225 high school students who tested Immune Attack (see Figure 2). Immune Attack is a first-person strategy PC video game that teaches immunology principles through entertaining game play.

To ask a question, the player pauses the game, opens the game's main menu, and selects the My LA option. A second window pops open and provides an interface similar to that of a PDA device. Players may use natural language questions with keyboard input and P&Q question-asking methods. All answers are provided in text and audio form. Most answers include images, which can be seen by selecting a "view image" option. No video was included with the prototype game.

The students and teachers provided a high ranking for the Q&A interface. The students liked the ability to learn more about the biological objects in the game and found the Q&A interface helpful in answering their questions. Use of the interface varied among the game players. Some students said they wanted the user interface to be more closely integrated into the game. The students recommended that question asking be invoked within the game's play screen; these students reported that they preferred listening to the answers rather than reading the text. Many students said that they liked to keep their eyes on the screen and felt that reading a lot of text would interrupt game flow.

The students also preferred brief answers a few lines in length, with an option to read more if desired. This would be particularly relevant once Q&A were available within the main game-play screen. The teachers focused on the knowledge base and the potential for increasing the breadth of topics. These recommendations will be integrated into the full game to be tested in Spring 2007.

back to top  Acknowledgements

Eitan Glinert, Michelle Roper, and Mark Schleicher, Federation of American Scientists, contributed to the architectural design of My LA by defining requirements and using the tools in their game projects. Loring Holding, Brown University, provided invaluable advice regarding game engine integration issues. This project was funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation Grant #REC0427827.

back to top  References

1. Bransford, J. D., Goldman, S. R., & Vye, N. J. (1991). Making a difference in people's ability to think: Reflections on a decade of work and some hopes for the future. In R. J. Sternberg & L. Okagaki (Eds.), Influences on children (pp. 147-180). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

2. Graesser, A. C., & Person, N. K. (1994). Question asking during tutoring. American Educational Research Journal, 31, 104-137.

3. King A. (1994). Guiding knowledge construction in the classroom: Effects of teaching children how to question and how to explain. American Educational Research Journal, 31, 338-368.

back to top  Authors

Sachin Patil
Federation of American Scientists

Kay Howell
Federation of American Scientists

About the authors:

Sachin Patil is a computer engineer researching My LA project at FAS. He is currently investigating potentials and limitations of available technologies in developing a multifaceted question-generation and -answering system as a learning tool. As a graduate researcher, he was part of Naval Lab's multi-modal Virtual Reality-based training simulation project at the George Washington University. Earlier, he led the educational game initiative in three regional languages as part of computer assisted learning program in India.

Kay Howell directs projects in learning technologies, biomedical research and computing, and technologies for training against terror. She led the development of a national research plan that describe the possibilities and key R&D priorities and challenges of using information technology for education and training. With the help of experts from across the learning technology field, five roadmaps were produced that outline a plan aimed to stimulate the development and dissemination of next-generation learning tools.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Components of the overall system

F2Figure 2. My LA in Immune Attack

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©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0100  $5.00

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