The Open University, Knowledge Media Institute
We describe a system which uses an agent-based approach to support teaching in the collaborative setting of asynchronous plain-text electronic conferencing. We have identified areas within which tutors who use conferencing need support and developed a system which provides help in an opportunistic manner. The agent we have developed uses a case-based approach to instruction by offering help on common student problems. The cases used are examples of problems experienced by students in previous years and discussions of how they were resolved. These cases are presented by the agent when it identifies an appropriate point in the conference. An experimental version of this agent, which we call the 'Virtual Participant' (VP), has been tested on the Open University MBA course 'Creative Management'. We review the effect of the system and the lessons to be learned from this experiment.
Keywords--distance education, educational groupware, case-based instruction, support tools for collaborative teaching.
The development of the 'Virtual Participant' (VP) stemmed from two observations. First, electronic conferencing allows distance learning students to communicate more freely with each other and their tutors, resulting in an increased drain on staff time and resources . Second, we have observed that conference interactions form a case-base of problems and solutions. This paper addresses the drain on resources by the reuse of this case-base.
Case-based teaching  is founded on the reuse of the previous experiences of others. A case-base of student interactions provides the tutors with examples of common problems experienced by the students. To use these cases to the full we must provide them to the students in the right context and at the right time. If this task is automated, the burden on the tutors to answer common questions is reduced.
We are studying students on the Open University's 'Creative Management' Course (B882) who currently use FirstClassTM as their conferencing system. Conferencing is an optional activity in this course; not all students are willing, or able, to take part in it. Nixon & Salmon  recognize problems with conferencing and introduce a 4 stage student model describing how students access and become socially acclimatized to a conferencing environment. They note that the initial use of such a system is an important time and to prevent students from dropping out of conferencing and suggest that "learner support is concentrated at the early stages". We have noted that a case-base of examples can be derived from the student interactions of previous years. These can be used for teaching, but are not initially in an appropriate form. To summarize our position:
The number of students using electronic conferencing is growing, and there may be no other contact for some students.
The content of the discussions can be poor and not all topics relevant to the course may be discussed.
The increased load on tutors may delay feedback.
In addition the conferences from previous years represent useful knowledge in the form of cases of common problems faced by students. These cases are not indexed and therefore difficult to search. This makes it difficult for a tutor to present them at the time when they would be most useful.
Our intention is to address these in a way that can enhance the students experience of conferencing and helps them benefit from the discussions of previous students.
The use of examples in teaching (i.e. 'cases') to help students learn from the experiences of others is