Erin Walker’s two favorite courses in high school were computer science and psychology. She didn’t want to choose between them when she went to college, so she majored in both.
Now as an assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, Walker is taking that expertise to make advances in human-computer interaction (HCI) and collaborative educational technologies.
“HCI has become much more popular in recent years,” she says. “In the technology industry, at companies like Intel and Google, but also start-ups, having an HCI person is seen as an asset.”
She notes a similar trend in educational technology, also a relatively new field. With schools—particularly inner-city schools and schools in disadvantaged areas—struggling to find ways to bring the individualized learning that students need she says that the goal is to find ways to use technology to facilitate and fuel a passion for learning.
While pursuing her doctoral degree in human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, Walker worked with Ken Koedinger, a prominent researcher in educational technology and intelligent tutoring systems. These systems model what students are doing and help them learn by giving tailored feedback and help that adapts to the individual learner’s knowledge and interests.
Walker’s dissertation work focused on adaptive technology to support collaboration.
“How do we get students to work together, construct knowledge together and build those collaborative skills that they are going to need when they go on to jobs in the real world? That is one of my passions,” she explains.
There are three parts needed to tackle the problem: an understanding of what good collaboration is, an assessment system to track the learning activity, and the type of feedback needed to improve collaboration.
For her dissertation, Walker built a model of good tutoring over instant messaging, then used automated dialogue analysis to assess the actual quality of the tutoring. She found that targeted prompts—used to provide feedback to the tutor to give additional information or insight—not only improved the quality of peer tutoring, but also improved how much peer tutors learned compared to prompts that were not adaptive to the situation.
Walker is expanding this work to look for ways to support collaboration in a variety of different learning contexts.
One project looks at the idea of learning by teaching. Students teach a robot mathematics they learn in class. In another, she is looking at ways to support college-level peer tutors be more effective in online communities. Another project focuses on better collaboration tools for digital textbooks, finding a balance between personalization and knowledge-sharing.
“A digital textbook adapts to your interest and presents content that you can understand. That is the future, but if everyone had an individual textbook there is no common ground,” she says. “We want to inspire true collaborative activities, not simply shared resources.”
“I love doing research and I think the university is a really good place to have an impact. When I got to ASU and saw the kind of programs that people are running, the kind of outreach that people are doing and this focus on educational advancement across the whole university, I was really excited,” she says.
Walker is also interested in mentoring. Several students – both undergraduate and graduate—work with her on research. She says she is interested in sharing her HCI expertise with any students interested in the field.
“We serve a large community. The mission of ASU is very interdisciplinary, very applied. I feel like I add to the HCI presence and bring a different perspective,” she says.
For more on Walker’s research, visit: faculty.engineering.asu.edu/ewalker.