A holistic approach to intelligent social learning

Erin Walker, Associate Professor

Computational progress has provided endless opportunities for learning from home, when the coronavirus pandemic made students across the country depart the classroom indefinitely. These distance learning systems work to address the pragmatics, like math lessons and reading assignments, but raise questions of emotional development. How do you ensure that students connect with each other from home like they would in a traditional academic environment? How do you keep them motivated to learn, especially if they don’t have access to fast internet? These questions require psychological and educational research to complement emerging technology in order to give students an impactful learning experience until they can get back to the school in person.

Erin Walker’s research works to find the most efficient yet powerful way to learn

Erin Walker has worked with intelligent systems, which use artificial intelligence technologies to achieve a goal, since her dissertation. She and her various collaborators have used this technology in an educational context by understanding the ways students learn and designing potential interventions. Walker’s specific interest lies in social learning — the ways students work together.

All stages of education require collaboration, so applications span all age groups, with certain usages for college students and others for elementary students. In one venture, Walker and her team designed a project where a middle school student teaches math to a robot. They tempered with the robot’s social behavior through dialogue and determined whether that encouraged students, which the researchers gauged by how a student matched their voice to the pitch of the robot, as people match pitch to indicate comfort. After just a 40-minute session, students demonstrated a better understanding of the subject if they felt a positive response to the interaction.

Surfacing results allowed Walker to redirect her focus a bit and ask more complex and wide-reaching questions. Building on psychology research conducted in partnership with her colleagues at the Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, she began to think of intelligent interventions holistically by taking into account some more emotional factors.

“[I’m] not just looking at learning specifically as students increase their knowledge, but also are they feeling more motivated, do they feel better about themselves as learners, are they developing a math identity or computer science identity that's positive,” Walker says.

This context became necessary with the coronavirus pandemic. With in-person classroom interactions on hold, Walker and her team don’t want students to fall behind in social learning. They have been examining the various ways students collaborate online, such as a digital whiteboard, to see what formats help students feel connected to each other and their instructors while advancing academic progress.

But they want to promote a process that’s equitable. Not all students have access to the fastest internet or their own computer, but Walker says she and her collaborators are working to give every student the opportunity to continue social and traditional learning no matter where they’re schooling from.

Research Interests:

Computer-supported collaboration, tangible and embodied learning environments, human-robot interaction, human-computer interaction, technology for the developing world.