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AIED 2011 conference report

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Queen Street, Auckland

I recently attended the 2011 Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIED 2011) conference in Auckland, New Zealand.

The main focus of the AIED conference series is various approaches to designing and evaluating intelligent tutors. An intelligent tutor is basically a computer program that uses AI techniques (such as planning algorithms) to teach students new concepts or techniques based on a model of what the students already know, or are supposed to know. The conference is quite old, this was the 15th biannual conference. The conference is organized by the International AI in Education Society. It also seems that the AIED conference is liaised with the Intelligent Tutoring Systems conference (ITS) so that ITS runs every even year and AIED runs every odd year. Collectively ITS and AIED publish the vast majority of new research in the intelligent tutoring field.

I was at AIED to present a poster on the first steps towards designing intelligent tutors for text entry methods. The idea is to increase user adoption of novel text entry methods by using highly effective and engaging intelligent tutoring. I wouldn’t classify myself as an intelligent tutoring researcher so attending this conference was a good opportunity to get an insight into the field’s frontier.

AIED conference proceedings

The conference was held at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Auckland’s city campus. The conference had a poster session, an interactive event, and three parallel paper tracks. In my opinion the overall organization of the conference and the program worked out very well.

The presented papers fell into three categories: systems, user studies, or data mining. I learned that the latter is apparently so popular that people have felt the need to start a conference on just that, the Educational Data Mining conference (EDM). I also found that machine learning is becoming increasingly popular in intelligent tutoring systems. Some of the machine learning techniques people used were POMDPs and Bayesian models. An interesting concept I didn’t know about before was Open Learner Models (OLMs). OLMs exploit the fact that while a student is using an intelligent tutor the system develops a model of the student. The idea behind OLMs is to figure out how to present the entire model (or aspects of it) to the student. Presumably this can aid the student’s learning.

Some of the papers presented intrigued me. In particular a paper on motivational processes seemed to point in good directions and another paper on confusing students (!) had led to some rather surprising results. I also found out that another active research area is authoring tools for ITSs, some which use techniques from the end-user programming field.

Overall I very much enjoyed going to this conference. It was refreshing to learn about an area of research outside of my comfort zone. Time will tell if I will submit a full paper to AIED 2013!

Firefox 4 and the disappearing status bar: on forcing interface redesigns upon users

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Update (June 24, 2011):

Firefox 5 brought back the status bar, at least for Windows.

So Firefox prompted me to update to the new version, which I did. And the first thing I noticed was that the menu bar was gone. However, an option enabled me to get it back relatively quickly.

The second thing I noticed was that the status bar was gone. As it turns out, there is no option to get it back, and this is by design.

This puzzles me because there are at least three pieces of information I am relying on the status bar for:

  1. Which URL I will load if I click on a link.
  2. Whether or not I am on a secure link (the padlock icon).
  3. Status of long downloads.

Now these pieces of information are not visible, save for item 1 above. The way Firefox 4 solves item 1 without a status bar is to implement a “temporary status bar” which is only visible when you hover over a link, or when a page loads. Given how many links there are on websites nowadays this results in a lot of flicker in the bottom-left corner of my browsing window when my cursor inadvertently hovers over some of the links.

With the new design I lose information (padlock icon and download progress) and I have to endure distracting flicker in the bottom-left corner. Further, the fact that the status bar is not really gone shows how a mantra (I would guess minimalism) has taken precedence over function.

This makes me think about the philosophy of user interface redesigns and software updates. Do we really want to design software that forces new interface redesigns upon users? Shouldn’t we convince users of the benefits of a new user interface design rather than force it upon users? Unlike software bug fixes, user interface updates always come with retraining costs. Habitual patterns break and users must invest time and effort in figuring out how to achieve the same tasks—assuming those tasks are even possible to achieve with the new design! In the case of Firefox 4, wouldn’t a more democratic and user-friendly approach had been to keep the status bar as it was and gently ask users upon installation whether or not they would want to try the new interface redesign with a flickering status bar?

Economists say it is (in some instances) challenging to convince users to give up suboptimal technologies because of path dependence. Under this interpretation, forcing interface redesigns upon users opens up a way to escape a local optimum in which users refuse to upgrade poor technology they consider “good-enough” . However, interfaces redesigns always come at a cost for users, no matter if those interface redesigns prove to be better later on. Therefore, the expected gains of an interface redesign must always be weighted against the non-negligible adaptation and retraining costs that are imposed on users. And sometimes an interface redesign is just a step backwards. Such as the removal of the status bar in Firefox 4.