Towards personalised learning communities on the Web

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15 Οκτ 2013 (πριν από 4 χρόνια και 8 μήνες)

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Towards personalised learning communities on the Web

Jesus G. Boticario*, Carlos Catalina**, Elena Gaudioso* and Felix Hernandez*


University distance learning is benefiting from the intensive use of Internet
resources. This development

is changing the teaching model. Lecturers and
students are becoming active members of virtual educational communities. Thus
communication and collaboration between lecturers and students is being
enhanced. In this paper we describe a web site particularly

appropriate for the
development of cooperative work by the members of one group. Finally, we
describe WebDL briefly, a multiagent system within this web site, aimed at
personalising response to the user through machine learning techniques.


ine Learning Communities, Adaptive Web
based Systems, Distance
Learning, Multiagent architectures, Machine Learning.

Contact Information


* {jgb,elena,felixh}

Departamento de Inteligencia Artificial

Facultad de Ciencias,

Universidad Nacio
nal de Educacion a Distancia, UNED

C/Senda del Rey, 9

28040, Madrid





Unidad Tecnica de Investigacion y Formacion en Recursos Tecnologicos


Edificio Facultad de Psicología UNED

dad Universitaria 28040

Madrid, SPAIN

Fax: + 34 91 398 66 93



It is obvious that positive use of the Internet media currently available will radically change
teaching/learning relationships. The lecturer will have to become an information

a critical analyst of knowledge, a study guide, a reviser and assessor of a student’s
academic education. Students will have to start to be aware of their essentially active role in
the learning process as members of a virtual community of pe
ople with shared educational

Related to this aspect, but moving away now from the distance learning framework, there
are more and more initiatives on the Web based on the development of virtual communities
with different interests:
of people with different levels of experience and with
common interests, who come together on the Internet to take advantage of communication,
collaboration and coordination with one another

(Third Voice [1], Gooey [2],
[3]). These communities us
e tools which facilitate on
line contact among users who are
browsing the same pages (Gooey), foment the creation and management of different
interest groups (Third Voice) and tested software (arsdigita

) for the development of sites
based on the storage
of site information in databases affording, among other things, the
following services: generation of dynamic page information, extension of their contents via
user on
line annotation introduction, identification of user types and register of navigation

It is however becoming increasingly difficult to meet the wide variety of user demands and
there are also the problems of inadequate structuring and the dispersion of Web sources
(newsgroups, mailing lists, different kinds of pages such as those of
the institutions, those
containing courses, FAQs, the lecturers’ personal pages, practical exercises, distance
learning assessment tests...). Naturally, this poses an obstacle to access to the information
or desired service. In addition, the use of the res
ources already available depends a great
deal on the degree of user training in their handling and knowledge of the web site

Similarly, due to the increasing number of users who access the web sites supporting the
creation of virtual communitie
s, more and more problems are being detected in the
management of these communities. Thus, mechanisms should be established to reduce the
difficulties caused by different user interests and profiles. For example, help tools could be
developed to connect pe
ople with the same interests or similar profiles.

Bearing in mind these considerations, our objectives are very varied in nature, since they
consider the quality of the teaching process and the effectiveness of on
line access. They
are as follows:

• To
create a specific platform from and for Internet Distance Learning.

• To foment significant and active learning by stimulating student participation in the use of
the different resources.


• To improve and ensure the procurement of the most relevant inf
ormation and the
establishment of the most significant communications for each user type by providing
quick, efficient and personalised access.

• To promote new ways of communication which facilitate the establishment of
workgroups of students and lectur
ers with common interests by increasing the flow of
information between all the protagonists participating in the process.

• To stimulate the use of the technological resources available to users.

• To personalise user access and services.

In this pa
per we describe a web site, based on an adaptation of the aD

Community System, which is called aLF, especially intended to support workgroups on the
Web. We then show how we extend this proposal with WebDL, a web
based educational
system within
aLF, intended to adapt sources of information and the Internet services to
user needs.


Web Distance Learning Teaching Initiatives

There are already some initiatives by educational communities around the UNED web site
(Telelab [4]; computing students’ Web

[5]) and considerably more outside it ( Freeenglish
[6], Clicktolearn [7], Almagesto [8], LearnOnDemand [9]) illustrative of the convenience
of using one of the following resources: establishing alternative communication channels
among the different prota
gonists, applying teaching/learning interactive tools to attend to
each user’s specific requirements and developing shared workspaces to manage
collaborative learning processes. The latter stimulate to a large extent the use of the
medium for mutual teachi
ng processes, where the most skilled assist and stimulate those
with more difficulties and also consolidate their own knowledge.

Initiatives of obvious interest also exist in the distance learning educational and training
field (interactive learning syste
ms [10], educational systems in different fields [11], virtual
teaching/learning communities and tools for the development of on
line courses [12]), as
well as distance learning universities and training centres strongly supported by the
intensive use of t
his medium (Open University[13], Distance learning University of
Catalonia[14], University of Wisconsin
Extension[15], AT&T’s Centre for Excellence in
Distance Learning[16]). Furthermore, of the numerous educational software packages
available, the automat
ic appraisal program developed by the Educational Testing Service
(CBT[17]) should be highlighted because of its interest in the continual assessment process
of a student, so necessary in distance learning.

However, and in spite of the fact that the Inter
net distance learning models are developing
quickly, many of the initiatives currently existing just deliver courses following a common
basic model: publication of the course on the Internet (using HTML pages, static document
repositories...) and communica
tion channels between lecturers and students based on
newsgroups and electronic mail. The models applied do not therefore offer either any
workgroup distributed management space or personalised access to the contents and the
services that they provide.

r proposal, aLF+WebDL, is based on a new conception of web sites for managing
virtual educational communities which can manage workgroups on the Web (with forums,
electronic mail, shared workspaces, services for personal notification of events, group task
management...) (see [18] for related web sites built with ArsDigita) and in a multiagent
system, WebDL, which enables all the foregoing elements to be personalised to the student
from his/her interaction with the web site and thanks to the application of a
learning techniques.


General Description


(developed by a development team from the Unidad Tecnica de Investigacion y
Formacion en Recursos Tecnologicos

(Technical Unit for Research and Training in
Technological Resources) at the Institut
o Universitario de Educacion a Distancia

), is the
application that supports a web site designed and constructed in order to facilitate the
development of virtual communities of users with the same interests and especially useful
in distance teaching as i
t enables the students belonging to a particular course to form part
of a workgroup with their fellow students and lecturers.

It is a web site for Internet distance learning which is being used for workgroup
management on the Web and includes: facilities
for the management of on
line courses,
shared workspaces, services for personal notification of events, public and private
calendars, shared interest links, interactive conversation and research group
management...And a lot more utilities presented efficie
ntly with state
art service and
architecture technology. The versatility of this site is that the information that the user
receives can be personalised and adapted to each individual and/or group of individuals
since the reply is dynamic and genera
ted from all the information stored in the database.

This web site has been developed using the ArsDigita Community System

; a tool package
for building scalable applications based on the web. It is based on a database and a set of
scripts which enable
the construction of pages which are dynamically personalised for the
user from the data on this user held in the database. aLF is composed of a Web server
(AOL server), a database (Oracle) and a set of TCL scripts which collect the user requests
and constr
uct the pages dynamically depending on the data which they have on the users in
the database.

Some of the services that aLF offers are as follows: workgroups, news, bulletin boards,
document management, chats, calendar, presentations, project management a
nd tools to
contact other users.

: An area where there can be such services as: newsgroups, common calendar,
group file storage with version control and grant management for the preparation of
documents in cooperative work environments, group

chats and forums, FAQ
publication systems, massive e
mail management to group members, group activity
project, task and notification of event management, etc. The administration of each



(IUED:www.iued An Institution linked to the Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia


workgroup is done by the person in charge who may not be the web site

manager. The
setting up of these kinds of workgroups is particularly useful for distance learning
since it has meant that associated centres are managed in aLF (local UNED university
centres dispersed all over Spain are linked), university department, dif
ferent degree
subjects (graduate and postgraduate subjects), courses (ongoing training for workers
and teachers, open learning), study groups for research students and groups.

shows the study group set up for the students of
a subject at UNED Escuela Tecnica
de Informatica. It has a newsroom (where the students discuss doubts about the
subject,) a storage area where the solutions to the exercises are published, etc.


Study group set up in aLF for a course

: They allow access to newsgroups via HTML pages (see
automatically index the messages by categories defined by the manager or establish a
notification system so that when

answers occur users are automatically informed. This
last service combines the best of a forum, ease of access based on a web interface,
with the best of electronic mail, the possibility of receiving information of interest on
demand. The participants in
the forums have the information like the date when the
forum was founded, the daily messages, the most active participants or rather all the
messages from one participant. Some of the forums of academic interest for our
educational communities are:
e forum

(it includes information on the contents
and organisation of the exercises, the distribution of the necessary material (trying to
offer different options for its development and additional existing documentation on
the Net)),
First solutions forum

(we propose using this service organised by topics, in
order to make students aware of the prior conceptual structure of a topic that they are
beginning to study. Students can consult the questions and responses given by other
fellow students to the topic’
s introductory exercises prepared by the teaching team and
updated according to student indications. Those students interested, without
consulting the rest of the material available, can leave their own solutions. These
solutions can provide other students

with an initial approach to the topic and will
reveal the limited prior knowledge of the problem in question);
exercises forum

(with this utility the students can gather sets of problems labelled by
topics and by sections of the syllabus.
Each exercise identifies the difficulty of the
problem so that students can classify their selection. Each of these problems has the
solutions given by the other students. A mechanism establishes that first students send
a file with their solution to a pro
blem before they gain access to the solutions to the


Newsgroup for IUED

Bulletin boards
: With this service aLF users can create news and messages for the rest of
the community member
s without the need for electronic mail (see
) . The date
of publication of the news, its expiry date and even the group of people for whom it is
intended can be controlled. This is because the news is for the workgroups. It is

particularly useful since the rest of the workgroup members can comment on the news
and group interaction is thereby enhanced.


Internet group work is useful particularly from an asynchronous point of view, i.e.,
when the different collaborators

do not coincide at the same time when they do their
work. However, on occasions the distance and feeling of isolation can be
counterproductive. With the chat tool small group chats can be organised, thereby
avoiding the problem of overcrowded chats which
make the service unintelligible.
The advantage of this service in aLF, as well as gaining access via the HTML pages,
is that all the conversations are recorded so that the lecturer can select relevant
information from his/her conversation with the students

and thus avoid repetition. It is
therefore advisable to transfer the key chat issues to the forum.

: There are private calendars for each of the users, group calendars and a public
calendar for all the aLF communities. The most commonly used s
ervice is the fixing
of appointments within the workgroup.


Bulletion Boards of the workgroup composed for a course in aLF

Document management
: The user can manage all his/her documents on
, by having
them in a central place accessible to all those users that he/she wants. The system has
a permit concession service so that each document can be read, modified or managed
by a specific user, by a series of specific users or by all a workgroup.
These users can
access from anywhere with a navigator to see their files and documents, can add new
ones, copy them, etc., and their earlier versions are stored. Furthermore, we can know
the history of the document and thus see who has worked on it and the

date when the
changes were made. The latter is particularly useful in distance learning since it
enables development in workgroups suggested by the lecturer; with this version
control it is possible to see which student has worked on which part, how they
worked together, etc.

shows the TutorT course development group storage
area structure for UNED telematic tutors.


TutorT course development group storage area

: They allow, by just completing forms, to prepare an instantaneous
presentation for the Web which is quickly downloaded with no laborious tasks of
sending files to the server; they have automatic indexes and all the links necessary for
igation support. They are really useful for teaching since they allow both lecturers
and students to specify certain contents on a few screens (HTML pages). They also
have a further advantage because you do not need to know the web format to edit the
n with a pleasant and navigable visual structure (see


"How to publish HTML pages in aLF" presentation

Project management
: It allows certain project tasks (and
their manager) to be created. For
each task, task or project assignments can be created which become the responsibility
of the task owner. These assignments can be different types (bugs, improvement, etc.),
have different levels of severity (high, medium,
low, etc.). Moreover, for every area
assignment, the person in charge of this area can request more information about the
assignment, reject it and check its state (open if it still has not been resolved, etc.) (see
). From th
e point of view of distance learning, the usefulness of a project
management tool as presented here is obvious, we can create projects for certain
student workgroups, and tasks for these projects, so that students work in their
corresponding area as they r
eceive assignments, either from their lecturer or their
fellow students. The group members can check their work on a list where all the group
member tasks are described, as well as progress reports on each one of them. Each
project can have forums, project

marks and a task and assignment monitoring system,
thereby creating a user
friendly project knowledge base which can be consulted and
accessed from the web.


Tickets assigned to a feature area as
sociated with a certain project

Tools to contact the other users
: there are a set of different tools enabling users to publish
their own personal pages, to see which users are connected at the same time (they
promote the use of the chat tool), to see wh
ich users are recorded and what their
participation is in the community (see


Users that are on
line at one specific moment



Despite the fact that aLF enabl
es pages to be built up depending on the user who is
accessing them, when the user enters the community, he/she may feel somewhat
overwhelmed by the amount of services provided there. One drastic solution to this
problem is to suppress many of the services

provided, and so guide the student in
accordance with the criteria which have been pre
established. Unlike this approach, our
focus consists of analysing the interaction of each specific user in order to provide him with
personalised services, adapted to
his needs and preferences. In addition, a comparative
analysis is carried out among the various users, so that the needs already detected for each
type of system user serve to anticipate the requirements of new users. In order to access all
the relevant da
ta resulting from each interaction of the user, aLF makes an exhaustive
register of the group of users, and WebDL acts on this database and learns the detectable
needs and requirements.

WebDL [1] behaves like a Web
based adaptive Educational System [6] an
d is thus able to
adapt the page contents and links to the user model in different ways (Adaptive
Hypermedia, AH). It also corrects and assists students in their learning tasks (Intelligent
Tutoring Systems, ITS). For this aspect, some of the distinguishin
g features of the WebDL
system responsible for the adaptation in aLF should be highlighted. In addition to the AH
and ITS techniques, there are also the so
called Learning Apprentice (LA) system faculties.
Thus less effort is required for personalised supp
ort of user decision tasks by extending the
initial knowledge base with machine learning techniques (for this we have drawn on our
own experience in the development of these kinds of systems [7]. Furthermore, the
approach that we have chosen is wider than
the one generally used for adaptive hypermedia
[4] because personalisation of the system, as well as guiding the user with link annotation,
changing the order of the page elements, also personalises some of the contents and any
other web site resource.


more detail, the adaptive module consists of a dynamic multiagent system combining
different generalisation methods (C5.0, Naive Bayes, Progol, Backpropagation, Tilde and
Autoclass for clustering) [2].

Another distinguishing feature of this system is tha
t the adaptation tasks not only refer to
the user model elements (navigation type carried out, contact preferences, level of
experience in the field, etc.) but they also identify, using collaborative learning techniques,
services which may be of interest f
or a user community. These services are all the resources
and material accessed by a group of users with a similar profile.

By including WebDL in aLF, the dynamic pages offered to the student are constructed from
the data held on the student and kept in t
he database and from the recommendations made
by WebDL according to the data on the student and this student’s interaction with the

This personalisation is done through user modelling acquisition. User modelling is carried
out by means of a set of

agents (see
) which combine the values learned with
different biases corresponding to different machine learning methods (C5.0, Naive Bayes,
Progol, Backpropagation, Tilde and Autoclass). To implement this combination, a spec
type of agent has been introduced: the advisor agent. Several advisor agents learn the
competence range of each of the other agents. A task is only distributed to those agents that
have been proved to be competent in it [3]. What differentiates our pro
posal from all those
presented in the field of adaptive systems is that, besides the values of the attributes which
make up the user model being inferred, the very architecture of the modelling subsystem
adapts itself to each task.


Architecture of the user modeling subsystem

The tasks done with WebDL are described in [3]. As regards the adaptive collaboration
support task [5] (the objective of the adaptive collaboration support task is to use the

knowledge that the system has on the students (stored in the user models) so as to constitute
workgroups and put students with similar interests and levels of experience in touch with
one another, etc.) (see
) in WebDL we dis
tinguish different kinds of collaboration
between students and lecturers (see [8] for related work):

• Collaboration via public annotations on the course pages.

• Collaboration via asynchronous communications of the course components (news, e

• Collaboration via the setting up of workgroups based on student similarities.

All these points are crucial on a web site like aLF, given all the communication and
cooperation opportunities on offer. The placing of students in workgroups according t
their interests and skill level (both for the subject and service use)is fundamental in a
medium like the one presented here. With WebDL it is possible to create workgroups
according to the information on the students in the database (personal and academ
information and information on their web site interactions).


WebDL screen with a recommendation to the user


Conclusions and Future Work

In this article we have seen the description of aLF, a web site particularly s
uited to the
development of cooperative work by the members of a group. Since service personalisation
that adapts to user needs and preferences is essential, we extend that proposal with WebDL,
a system capable of adapting to student needs based on their i

In order to access all the relevant data arising from each user’s interaction, aLF draws up a
complete register on the members of a group of users. WebDL acts on this database by
learning the detectable needs and requirements.

What differenti
ates our proposal from all those presented in the field of adaptive systems is
that, besides the values of the attributes which make up the user model being inferred, the
very architecture of the modelling subsystem adapts itself to each task, i.e., the ad
agent selects the learning agent which is the most competent for each task.

aLF is an application developed on aD capable of supporting 28,000 requests a second. It
has more than 2,500 programs written in TCL and it is supported by an Oracle databas
e and
the AOL server. The courses delivered by the team at the Unidad Tecnica de Investigacion
y Formacion en Recursos Tecnologicos

using aLF have been done by almost 1,000
students. All the courses are more than 300 pages long and include Practical Educ
Guides providing step by step advice on the different exercises to be completed. There are
over 50,000 recorded working sessions and 3,000 regular platform users.

As far as the architecture is concerned, our future goals include the improvement of

characterisation of problems within the system, probably through clustering techniques, and
the improvement of the advisor agent so that it might learn the set of relevant attributes for
each modelling agent and for each learning problem. As regards t
he application of WebDL
in aLF, the tasks implemented to date are those involved in adaptive navigation and
adaptive collaboration support, and our most immediate objective is to implement the other


tasks which enable us to give support to the student as h
e/she learns by intelligent analysis
of student solutions and interactive problem
solving support.



The authors would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of John Mullen and Anita
Haney, arising in the course of his language revision
of this article. We also thank the entire
Artificial Intelligence Department for providing support for this project.


Web References


Thirdvoice: [2000, November 6]


Gooey: [2000, November 6]

3. [2000, November 6]


Telelab: [2000, November 6]


Wainu: [2000, November 6]


Freeenglish: [2000, November 6]


Clicktolearn: [2000, November 6]


agesto: [2000, November 6]


LearnOnDemand: [2000, November 6]

10. [2000, November 6]

11. [2000, November 6]

12. [2000, November 6


Open University: [2000, November 6]


learning University of Catalonia: [2000, November 6]


University of Wisconsin
Extension: [2000, November 6]


AT&T’s Center for Excellence in Distance

Learning: [2000,
November 6]


CBT: [2000, November 6]


Related web sites built with ArsDigita
[2000, November 6]


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