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1. Introduction

In designing ATutor we have had the specific goal in mind of creating an adaptive learning environment that anyone could use. Regardless of how people go about learning, and regardless of the technology they might be using to learn online, ATutor is designed to accommodate all learners.

Human learning is highly complex, and ATutor can't hope to adapt to all the intricacies in the ways people interact with the world. A simplified six point model that draws on popular understanding of learning and the structure of knowledge, provides a starting point for developing an intelligent learning environment that adapts to all who use it.

2. Learning and Knowledge

Underlying ATutor's navigation structures and visual presentation is an understanding of the perceptual forms information takes on, an understanding of the senses through which people prefer to absorb and process information, and an understanding of the structural representations knowledge takes on in memory.

Perceptual Learning and Processing Styles

Perceptual style refers to the tendency people have to lean toward learning strategies and learning situations that favour their visual, verbal, or their kinesthetic faculties. These faculties roughly correspond to abilities of imagery, auditory/verbal processing, and physical coordination. In most cases learners use all three faculties, but tend to prefer one over the others.

  1. Visual

    Visual learners like to see or imagine things as their preferred means of learning. They learn by watching or viewing information. Knowledge tends to be represented in pictures. Architects, artists, and engineers tend to be visual learners.

  2. Verbal

    Verbal learners like to hear or verbalize things as their preferred means of learning. They learn through hearing, saying and reading information. Knowledge takes on an auditory nature as new information is being absorbed. Writers, speakers, and public personalities tend to be verbal learners.

  3. Kinesthetic

    Kinesthetic learners like to do or experience things as their preferred means of learning. They learn through activities and movement. Knowledge takes on a physical feeling of the circumstances under which learning occurred. Athletes, inventors, and craftsmen tend to be kinesthetic learners.

Structural Representations of Knowledge

Knowledge is "encoded" in memory in structural representations of relationships between facts and ideas. The perceptual "sense" of information as described above, is interconnected in Webs, hierarchies, and chains that arrange knowledge into "schemas" or "scripts" representing units of factual information or mental procedures, respectively.

  1. Global

    Global learners structure information in webs. Information is interconnected, with related topics linked to each other through weighted threads. Knowledge takes on a "big picture" structure through understanding the general concepts within a content area, creating a framework to which more detailed information can be connected.

  2. Hierarchical

    Hierarchical learners structure information in trees. More general ideas have subordinate ideas associated with them, which in turn have subordinate ideas associated with them. Knowledge takes on a structure much like a computer directory tree, with folders, sub folders, and files at varying depths.

  3. Sequential

    Sequential learners structure information in chains. Topics begin and end, and follow a straight path through a sequence of ideas. Knowledge takes on a linear structure much like a time line, or step by step procedures.

3. Web Accessibility

Web accessibility generally refers to the "inclusiveness" of Web content, or the ability of people with disabilities to gain access to that information using assistive technology. It can also refer to access for those using older technology to access the web, those accessing at lower bandwidths, or those accessing with limited experience or other special needs. ATutor adopts many strategies to ensure accessibility to both learners of diverse skill and ability, and to learners using older or specialized technologies who are learning online.

Web Content Accessibility

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 published by the W3C provides the initial model of accessibility for ATutor. Guidelines represent technical issues that must be addressed to ensure that all attempting to access information can do so with relative ease. WCAG 1.0 provides the framework for creating an application that will work with any technology accessing it over the Web.

Looking ahead to WCAG 2.0, usability is addressed with greater emphasis, providing guidelines for accommodating abilities as well as technologies. Web content adaptability addresses the inclusive usability of information.

Web Content Adaptability

Based on the six point model outlined above, ATutor presents information in visual, verbal, and kinesthetic perceptual forms, as well as global, hierarchical, and sequential structural forms.

Perceptual Adaptability

  1. Visual

    Icons are used throughout ATutor to represent tools, ideas, and resources in visual form. The visual layout can be adapted to each learner's preference and saved for future use, providing a consistent arrangement of ATutor features and navigation tools. Hierarchical presentations within the menus and the Sitemap also provide visual representations of the content structure. Within the Global and Local menus a learner's position within ATutor content is always highlighted, giving them a visual cue to their location within a collection of ideas.

  2. Verbal

    ATutor is presented in verbal form by default. ATutor can be reduced to a text presentation alone if learners prefer to read (or listen to ) content rather than view or visualize it. A text only presentation also ensures that all information can be accessed by any technology that reads HTML. ATutor development efforts also include the creation of a verbal feedback module (ATalker) that renders ATutor in audio form so learners can hear the environment as they navigate through it, and listen to content using an onthefly Text-to-Speech server.

  3. Kinesthetic

    ATutor is highly interactive and consistently presented throughout. Learners "use" ATutor to present content in a form that suits their perceptual styles, and can structure information into global webs, hierarchical trees, and sequential chains. Consistent layouts allow users to develop keyboard access strategies creating mental sequences of physical movements, or physical procedures, allowing them to automate their use of the environment and devote more mental resources to learning the content being presented.

Structural Adaptability

  1. Global

    Information can be presented in "wholes" that allow learners to develop "big pictures" of topic areas, familiarizing themselves with the main ideas within a larger topic as a framework for learning the finer details. The Sitemap presents an entire ATutor course as a tree of linked page titles, allowing learners to see the course topics in their entirety and jump around from topic to topic as they become relevant to ongoing learning. The Global Menu also presents the course as a whole, though the portion of the course displayed can be controlled by learners, giving them the ability to limit the amount of information presented at any one time. A course search engine also allows learners to move through content in a global manner.

  2. Hierarchical

    The Sitemap and Global menu, as well as the Local menu, the breadcrumb string, heading navigation, and Table of Contents navigation, provide learners with hierarchical strategies for moving "up and down" through ATutor content.

  3. Sequential

    Next and previous links allow learners to move through ATutor content in a predefined order. If they leave the sequence of topics, to go to the discussion forums to post a message for example, they can use the resume link, or highlighted titles in the menus to return to the position in the content where they left off.

4. Intelligent Learning Environments

To reach our goal of creating an adaptive learning environment, navigation patterns and preference settings provide the data for tracking how learners use ATutor. In the early versions of ATutor this data is collected in a static database (see: My Tracker, or Course Tracker within ATutor), and is controlled by individual learners. In later versions this data will be under the control of the system itself, monitoring learners' click paths and modifications to their preference settings, and using the data to adapt the learning environment to match the learning tendencies of each user.