Online learning environments have shown that students work at all hours. To provide assistance to students at all hours, these systems frequently offer hints, feedback, solutions, videos, eBooks, and similar problems. This article discusses a new, multi-level assistance framework (Deep Help) based on principles from knowledge space theory, the zone of proximal development, and cognitive load theory.
Homework usage stats:
Unlike analog homework, students can access online learning environments at any hour of the day and analytics are available to track student usage patterns. As shown in Figure 1, student usage peaks in the evening, when instructors tend to be unavailable.
Figure 1. Relative usage of an online learning system over the course of a day
Online learning environments often incorporate various tools to provide real-time assistance to the student, including hints, feedback, solutions, videos, eBooks, and access to example problems. Students in introductory-level courses frequently come from a diverse set of education backgrounds and consequently require different types and levels of assistance. This article describes the new Deep Help system, which provides on-demand, multi-level assistance to the learners when and where they run into difficulty. This system was designed to help every student best by using principles from the zone of proximal development, knowledge space theory, and cognitive load theory. When applied together these theories provide the foundation for the innovative design of the Deep Help system.
Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development concept describes the range of abilities that a learner cannot perform independently, but can perform with assistance. The zone of proximal development, represented by the blue center area in Figure 2, is the gap between tasks a learner can do without help and what the learner cannot do, even with assistance.
Figure 2. Graphical representation of the zone of proximal development.
The role of a teacher is to provide guidance and assistance so that the learner can accomplish tasks in the center section. Teachers can use online learning systems as an extension of their role to provide additional assistance when they are not available. Organizing which tasks fall into each of these segments is further described by the next framework.
Knowledge Space Theory
Knowledge space theory considers the dependent relationship between subsets of knowledge. For instance, the concept of the balanced equation for a reaction is a necessary prerequisite for the concept of stoichiometry. This relationship is also why it is rare to assess student understanding of stoichiometry with a problem involving a 1:1 ratio, since that could be solved without meeting the prerequisites.
Figure 3a. Example of a portion of a knowledge space.
For instance, in Figure 3a, an understanding of B requires a prerequisite understanding of A. Similarly, D depends on B and C, indicating that to understand D, a learner must already comprehend A, B, and C. Thus a knowledge state of ACE, FACE, or CAB would be possible, but FEB or DEC would not.
Applying the Zone of Proximal Development to a knowledge space diagram requires that the three regions be aligned in ways allowed by the dependencies in the diagram. A hypothetical example of this is illustrated in Figure 3b, with a learner able to accomplish A,B,C,E, and F without assistance, D and G with assistance, but unable to perform H. The dependencies make clear that if, for instance, F required assistance, then G would require assistance as well.
Figure 3b. Application of the zone of proximal development to a knowledge space diagram
Cognitive Load Theory
The major idea behind cognitive load theory is the assumption of a finite cognitive load capacity in a learner. This capacity is spread among intrinsic, extraneous, and germane aspects of the activity being performed. Intrinsic cognitive load comes from the difficulty and complexity of the concept. While extraneous cognitive load relates to the means through which a concept is presented. And germane load addresses the construction of schemas. This theory indicates that in order for the student to use the majority of his or her cognitive abilities for learning, it’s important to avoid extraneous tasks and distractions.
Deep Help Framework
The Deep Help framework was designed to provide stepped tutorials for prerequisite information. Students can dive deeper into the provided extra support as needed, until they fully understand all elements required to perform the original problem. The instructor has full control over student access to tutorials and can configure Deep Help to always be available or available only after a specified number of answer submissions. While many interactive tutorials and other help tools are associated at the question level in a student’s assignment, the Deep Help system is associated with individual steps in a tutorial (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Help systems associations
Cognitive load theory suggests a “just in time” paradigm: making it easy to find while the student is learning and limiting decision options so that less cognitive load is expended. Rather than having four tutorials to choose from, in the Deep Help system each step of the tutorial (highlighted in orange) only has one or two options for a learner to choose. The multi-step approach used in the tutorial helps the student see which step they are having difficulty with and easily identify what Deep Help exists.
From the perspective of knowledge space theory and zone of proximal development, we presume that instructors would assign questions that their students are able to do with assistance, however, we recognize that there are cases where this is not practical, such as before-class assignments or when students have missed class due to illness or other reasons. To use the example shown in Figure 3, the Deep Help system allows a student to backtrack to activities they can accomplish with the assistance of the system (blue), which can expand their capabilities to tackle the original question. It is important to note that students would not usually access a large portion of the Deep Help available for a given question, but would dive as deep as needed in an area in which they are having trouble. For students who are completely lost, the tutorial offers a step-by-step breakdown of the problem.
A student who is working on a problem has easy access to the relevant reference materials, lowering cognitive demands, as well as a link to the tutorial, which leads to the Deep Help (Figure 5). A basic demo can be reviewed at: http://www.webassign.net/info/demo_assignment.html?deployment=2934
Figure 5. Student view of a question with part of the associated tutorials and Deep Help
(click here to download original image)
By applying these learning theories in the design of the Deep Help System, instructors are able to offer additional support to students through the use of an online instructional system that assists students in indentifying where they are having trouble, provides multi-level assistance in those areas, and is always available.