CyberProf: an Intelligent Human-Computer Interface for Asynchronous Widearea Training and Teaching

Alfred W. Hubler
Andrew M. Assad

We introduce CyberProf, a robust software package which utilizes the full capabilities of a World Wide Web server as an intelligent human-computer interface for grading, creating and presenting educational course materials. Students can solve course problems presented with text, graphics, animations and sound on the Web and can receive instant feedback from a sophisticated grading package which makes use of the latest complex systems data analysis tools to handle ambiguous input in an intelligent manner. Fully integrated lecture notes and help files are hyperlinked to assist the student in solving an exercise. Instructors can make use of built-in problem set and lecture notes editors to create an entire online course customized for their needs. Early results of the system are promising. In the first university course in which CyberProf was used, class attendance rates were significantly higher, drop out rates were lower, and grade distributions were higher when compared to figures from the same course in previous semesters.
CyberProf educational complex systems online course grading


The Center for Complex Systems Research at the Beckman Institute of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has devoted much of its research efforts over the past seven years to developing tools for the analysis of complex data using diverse methodologies such as simulated annealing, neural networks, fuzzy logic, and those found in the relatively new field of complexity [1,2,3]. Now, with the emergence of the Internet as a primary medium of electronic communication and, in particular, the World Wide Web as a globally recognized standard for the rapid transfer of textual, graphical, and audio information, a unique opportunity is afforded software developers: the ability to combine the latest in complex systems modeling with a distributed computing interface to create truly multimedia educational software capable of handling ambiguous human input and providing access to the vast resources of the Web. CyberProf was specifically designed to take full advantage of this opportunity.

CyberProf is an intelligent human-computer interface for asynchronous widearea training and teaching which is being developed at the Department of Physics and the Center for Complex Systems Research at the Beckman Institute of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Interested persons are always welcome to visit the CyberProf page on the World Wide Web at the following URL:

The next section of this paper discusses the motivation behind the development of CyberProf. Section 3 provides a detailed description of the features of the system with particular emphasis placed on the grading module of the package. Section 4 entails a brief description of the implementation details of the system. Section 5 discusses preliminary results of CyberProf in terms of its impact on student performance in the first classes to use it extensively. Finally, in section 6, future ehancements to the system are proposed.


Previous online networked educational systems developed at the University of Illinois such as PLATO [4] and NovaNET [5] were partially successful, but somewhat limited by the technologies and methods of their time. Students could perform exercises online, receive instant feedback on their solutions, and have their grades automatically recorded. However, these systems were not capable of particularly sophisticated handling of student input nor were they able to take advantage of the enormous amount of information available on the Web. Furthermore, it was difficult to integrate lecture notes, labs, and homework into a cohesive package.

Cyberprof was conceived with the notion of addressing these shortcomings by synthesizing all of the functionalities of the above systems with the new technologies of the World Wide Web and a much more robust student/computer interface engine based on modeling the human-computer interaction as a complex system. In recent years several key paradigms have been developed in complex systems research, such as adaptation to the edge of chaos, the principle of the dynamical key, the principle of least resistance, neural nets, associative memories etc. In the fall of 1994 A. Hubler proposed to employ and test these paradigms with the objective to make the learning process more efficient, i.e. create an intelligent learning environment for the student.

Features of CyberProf

Essentially, CyberProf acts as a Web interface between four agents: the student, the instructor, the World Wide Web, and an intelligent grading engine based on complex systems methods. Figure 1, below, illustrates this paradigm.

Figure 1: The CyberProf system

Along the student/system interface, students can:

Along the instructor/system interface, an instructor can:

The following three sections list some of the important general features, problem set generation capabilities, and features of the grading package of the system, respectively.

General features

Problem set generation features

Features of the grading software


Cyberprof is implemented as a package of Perl scripts and C routines which handle student and instructor input via HTML forms submitted to a Web server running httpd. A typical problem HTML form is depicted below in Figure 2.

Figure 2: An example CyberProf problem form

This form illustrates most of the key features of the interface to the grading software. The student is presented at the top of the form with text and/or images describing a situation and asking a question. On this particular form, the student is expected to draw a curve on the graph presented as an "image" type HTML input to the form utilizing CyberProf's interactive drawing capabilities. In general, depending upon the type of problem, a student might input text or numbers in a "text" HTML input on the form, or might be asked to choose an answer from a "select" type HTML input.

Once the student has entered an answer, he can press the "check answer" button to submit the form. The grading software is then invoked by the Web server to grade the student's answer. This software responds to the student by generating another HTML form which again presents the problem as described above, informs the student if his answer was correct or not, and provides specific hypertext references to locations in the online lecture notes which might assist the student in the event of an incorrect answer.

For some problems, the student might also be able obtain more detailed information on why his answer is incorrect by clicking on the "What's wrong with my answer?" button. Additionally, standard "help" and "hint" buttons can be included in a problem which produce instructor-specified assistance to the student.

Hyperlinks to references and other aspects of the system such as the gradebook, course bulletin board, and lecture notes are available at the bottom of the form.


An early prototype of CyberProf, called PHYSICA, was first used in an actual course, Physics 101, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during the spring semester of 1995. This section presents data taken from that class regarding student enrollment, attendance, and exam performance, comparing it to data from the same course offered in previous semesters.

Table 1, below, compares enrollment figures and drop out rates for Physics 101 courses sinces the spring semester of 1993.

Table 1: Enrollment Figures for Physics 101
Spring 95Fall 94 Spring 94Fall 93Spring 93
Initial Number Enrolled 317407306434351
Final Number Enrolled 306362285384314
Drop Out Rate 3.5%11.1%6.9%11.5%10.5%

As can be seen in Table 1, the drop out rate for the course for the semester in which CyberProf was introduced (Spring 95) was 3.5%, almost three times lower than the average drop out rate, 10.0%, for the same course over the previous four semesters.

Figures 3 and 4 below depict final exam score distributions for the Spring 1994 Physics 101 course and the Spring 1995 Physics 101 course, respectively.

Figure 4: Score distribution for final exam, Spring 1995

The major discernible difference between these distributions would appear to be the lack of the lower tail in the final exam score distribution for the Spring 1995 semester (Figure 4), when CyberProf was integrated into the course, compared to the score distribution for the Spring 1994 course which did not use CyberProf. In fact, this difference appeared fairly consistently when comparing the grade distributions for the three midterm exams given during the Spring 1994 and 1995 semesters as well.

In addition, to the enrollment numbers and exam score distributions mentioned above, the instructor who taught the Spring 1995 course with CyberProf noticed a significant increase in lecture attendance, perhaps as much as 10 to 20 percent, compared to previous semesters when he taught the same course. Although the results of one course don't provide conclusive evidence that CyberProf was directly responsible for these perceived improvements in student performance, they seem to indicate, along with the generally enthusiastic response to the system from the students in that class, that CyberProf has a struck a resonant chord with the students. Enthusiasm for the system has spread rapidly within the university across many disciplines. CyberProf is currently being used to develop online Web courses at the University of Illinois in several different departments such as Physics, Agriculture, Economics, Electrical Engineering, Chemistry, Bioengineering, and Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. A full Center for Complex Systems Research at the Beckman Institute of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It is supported by a grant from the Department of Physics.

The Sloan Center for Asynchronous Learning Environments at the UIUC supports the development of CyberProf courseware with problem sets and lecture notes in Electrical Engineering, Economics, and Agriculture.

Of course, CyberProf would not be where it is today without the dedicated efforts of the CyberProf development team: Lance Arsenault, Brian Rogers, Ed Chang, Brian White, Uli Kruse, Thao Tran, Denny Kane, Karl Schmidt, Navin Kiribamune, Ari Trachten, Laura Brandon, Renee Brockman, and Kaveh Ghaboussi.

Thanks are also due to several UIUC staff members, in particular, Lorella Jones, Bruce Hunter, J.Mochel, B.Oakley II, R.Borelli, and, J. Shannon for discussions and suggestions.

A large number of students of the spring 1995 Physics 101 class have been contributing to this development with ideas, problems sets, and software.


1. Cowan, G., D. Pines, and D. Meltzer, editors, Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality, Reading, MA, 1994. Addison-Wesley.

2. Forrest, S., editor, Emergent Computation, Cambridge, MA, 1991. MIT Press.

3. Lam, L. and V. Naroditsky, editors, Modeling Complex Phenomena, New York, NY, 1992. Springer-Verlag.

4. Sherwood, B. and Stifle, J., The PLATO IV communications system, Urbana, IL, 1975. University of Illinois Computer-based Education Research Laboratory.

5. Silver, D., NovaNET : basic skills lessons for middle school, high school, and adult basic education students, Urbana, IL, 1988. University of Illinois Computer-based Education Research Laboratory.

About the Authors

Alfred W. Hubler
Beckman Institute - Center for Complex Systems Research and the Physics Department
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 405 North Mathews Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801, USA

Andrew M. Assad
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1406 West Green Street, Urbana, IL 61801, USA