Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

An Agent System to Support Student Teams Working Online

Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

An Agent System to Support Student Teams Working Online

Article excerpt

Introduction

The higher education sector is being encouraged to provide more teaching materials and modules online, both as part of distance learning provision and as supplementary aids to learning for campus based courses (Eisenberg, 1998). Indeed technology has the potential to change the ways in which we teach and support students in the traditional university beyond recognition (Laurillard, 1993). There are difficulties in providing online tutorial support for students, and a particular problem is how students online can gain the same learning experiences as traditional campus based students (Thomas, Carswell, Price, Petra, 1998). The application of software agents to various online tasks has led to research into the ways in which agents may be used to support students online. In particular software agents may be used to help students search the Internet, share information with others and undertake group projects online. In this paper an agent system for supporting the maintenance tasks of group projects is described. The structure of a prototype system to support the planning stages of a group project is given, based upon research into problems students experience when carrying out group projects face to face.

Software Agents

The concept of an agent originates from human agents that provide services, such as estate agents and travel agents. These agents have specialist skills, access to relevant information, contacts for obtaining information and are focused on a particular task. In the same way software agents are autonomous systems that work on behalf of a user (Bradshaw, 1997). They exhibit the ability to recognise what the user needs to accomplish and reacts to the user's input. A more formal definition is:

An agent is a self-contained, concurrently executing software process, which encapsulates the current state in terms of knowledge, and is able to communicate with other agents through message passing (Wooldridge & Jennings, 1994).

A software agent may operate in isolation, working on behalf of an individual, but their power derives from an ability to communicate with other agents to fulfil tasks they would be unable to complete alone. Typically a multi-agent system may consist of several agents, each capable of performing a different task autonomously. A network of agent systems, communicating over a wide area network (WAN) or a local area network (LAN), will make use of Internet connectivity to pass messages between each other. These multi-agent systems are the main thrust of current research, and have arisen as a result of the massive global infrastructure of networks now available.

Agent technology is a relatively new field of applying artificial intelligence (AI) to practical areas, e.g. knowledge management (Ferneley & Berney, 1999) and Internet searchbots (Lieberman, 1997). There are several examples of software agents acting as Internet search bots, such as Phibot or MySpiders, some combine the search facilities provided by several search engines into a more powerful search agent, attempting to reduce the information overload potentially experienced by people performing searches on the Internet (Henninger, 2002; Pant & Menczer, 2002).

Online Learning

The potential for using the Internet and the multimedia capabilities of technology for learning is great. Benefits may include provision for disadvantaged students as well as cost savings through economies of scale or automation of the teaching processes; also, embracing video, audio and animation may help the learning process (Stephenson, 2001). E-learning is a term applied to systems for distance learning (Rudenstein, 1998), software to support students taking a campusbased course, or simply online documentation for teaching (O'Hagan, 1998; Thomas et al., 1998). Online learners rely on Internet connections to communicate with institutions, tutors and other learners, and there is often a sense of isolation from the support of others. …

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