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
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
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  and NovaNET  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:
- Submit solutions to online homework and quiz problems
- Receive immediate grading and obtain detailed information
on how or why their solutions are incorrect from the complex systems engine
- Obtain appropriate hyperlinked references to resources on the Web
- Communicate with the instructor via a Web bulletin board
- Access a Web gradebook to monitor their progress
Along the instructor/system interface, an instructor can:
- Create problem sets with a Web problem set editor
- Utilize field specific tools for creating problems specific
to his/her field
- Create online lectures notes
- Communicate with students via a Web bulletin board
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.
- Students and instructors have fast and easy access to the system
using platform-independent Web browsers available at no cost.
- CyberProf, itself, is free.
- Students are encouraged to make use of the most recent technologies
available on the Web.
- Integrated conferencing software helps the student to communicate
with network teaching assistants and the instructor.
- Integrated Web tools allow for interactive drawing of pictures
and creation of animations.
Problem set generation features
- Extensive use can be made of graphical information and movies instead
of text to describe
complex situations. Instead of unrealistic over-simplifications,
we encourage the instructor to use realistic, possibly quite complicated
situations in problem sets and computer lessons. The complexity of
the situation is communicated by images, movies, and sound. Written
text is kept at a minimum.
- The instructor can match the educational an social background of
each individual student with appropriate language and presentation
in the problem sets and computer lessons.
- Problem sets can take full advantage of (i) sound and other multimedia
features of PowerMacs and other PC level computers and (ii) high
data transfer rates on the Internet.
- Problems sets, help files for problem sets, and lecture
notes can be hyperlinked to form a coherent package.
- The source code of the problem sets is very simple and can be
generated by a lay person. Complicated equations are typed in LATEX
notation and displayed on the web page.
- Integrated conferencing software helps the student to communicate
with network teaching assistants and the lecturer.
Features of the grading software
- Careful analysis of student answers based on the most recent
complex systems data analysis techniques (e.g. physical number theory,
fuzzy logic, associative memory) gives partial credit when
- Careful study of the student answers: checks for sign errors, unit
errors, and numerical errors are made. Specific hyperlinked help is offered,
based on the error analysis.
- The time which the student takes to solve a problem is monitored
and displayed on the student's Web page and can be compared with the
"expected" time a student should need to solve that type of problem on an
- Every student gets a different set of numbers, which are chosen
by a personalized random number generator.
- Every student gets a different set of problems, which are
selected fom a large pool with a personalized random number generator.
- Upon request by the student, a problem can be explained in detail
in audio. Often a
problem can be faster and more easily understood if it is explained with
different words from a second perspective. The audio feature makes
it possible to give more detailed explanations which would be time consuming
and cumbersome to read as text.
- The grading program can check symbolic expressions, numerical
equations and differential equations with symbolic expressions.
- Students can use an interactive drawing tool to
draw graphs of functions on an XY plot
which are instantly graded by comparing them to a theoretical curve
generated by an instructor-specified function.
- The grading program keeps track of the progress of every student
and saves the information instantly in a grade book. Students will
not lose credit in case of network errors, power failures, or other
interruptions of service.
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: 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.
Enrollment Figures for Physics 101
|Spring 95||Fall 94
||Spring 94||Fall 93||Spring 93
|Initial Number Enrolled
|Final Number Enrolled
|Drop Out Rate
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
Beckman Institute of the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
It is supported by a grant from the
Department of Physics.
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
1. Cowan, G., D. Pines, and D. Meltzer, editors,
Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality,
Reading, MA, 1994. Addison-Wesley.
2. Forrest, S., editor,
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
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