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An E-Librarian Service - Supporting Explorative Learning by a Description Logics Based Semantic Retrieval Tool

Although educational content in electronic form is increasing dramatically, its usage in an educational environment is poor, mainly due to the fact that there is too much of (unreliable) redundant, and not relevant information. Finding appropriate answers is a rather difficult task being reliant on the user filtering of the pertinent information from the noise. Turning knowledge bases like the online tele-TASK archive into useful educational resources requires identifying correct, reliable, and "machine-understandable" information, as well as developing simple but efficient search tools with the ability to reason over this information.

Our vision is to create an E-Librarian Service, which is able to retrieve multimedia resources from a knowledge base in a more efficient way than by browsing through an index, or by using a simple keyword search. In our E-Librarian Service, the user can enter his question in a very simple and human way; in natural language (NL). Our premise is that more pertinent results would be retrieved if the search engine understood the sense of the user's query. The returned results are then logical consequences of an inference rather than of keyword matchings. Our E-Librarian Service does not return the answer to the user's question, but it retrieves the most pertinent document(s), in which the user finds the answer to his/her question.

Among all the documents that have some common information with the user query, our E-Librarian Service identifies the most pertinent match(es), keeping in mind that the user expects an exhaustive answer while preferring a concise answer with only little or no information overhead. Also, our E-Librarian Service always proposes a solution to the user, even if the system concludes that there is no exhaustive answer.

Our E-Librarian Service was implemented prototypically in three different educational tools. A first prototype is CHESt (Computer History Expert System); it has a knowledge base with 300 multimedia clips that cover the main events in computer history. A second prototype is MatES (Mathematics Expert System); it has a knowledge base with 115 clips that cover the topic of fractions in mathematics for secondary school w.r.t. the official school programme. All clips were recorded mainly by pupils. The third and most advanced prototype is the "Lecture Butler's E-Librarain Service"; it has a Web service interface to respect a service oriented architecture (SOA), and was developed in the context of the Web-University project at the Hasso-Plattner-Institute (HPI).

Two major experiments in an educational environment - at the Lycée Technique Esch/Alzette in Luxembourg - were made to test the pertinence and reliability of our E-Librarian Service as a complement to traditional courses. The first experiment (in 2005) was made with CHESt in different classes, and covered a single lesson. The second experiment (in 2006) covered a period of 6 weeks of intensive use of MatES in one class. There was no classical mathematics lesson where the teacher gave explanations, but the students had to learn in an autonomous and exploratory way. They had to ask questions to the E-Librarian Service just the way they would if there was a human teacher.

downloadable thesis (pdf format)