In a remote African hut, a mother clutches her collapsed child in dread. She’s seen the symptoms before. They’re almost always fatal.

She describes them aloud in her native tongue. Across the room, a computer screen displays the face of her “pediatrician.” He asks her a series of questions and then prescribes the cure.

It’s water.

Today, Africa has the highest mortality rate for children under five. Most times, death is from preventable problems like dehydration. But medical help is seldom close enough to matter.

A proposal before the World Bank would change that by placing cognitive tutors in every hut of every village on the African continent.

That’s the long-term dream of Carnegie Mellon’s Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics Raj Reddy, who like the late visionary Herb Simon, believes education technology can cure many of the world’s ills. With the help of World Bank funding, Reddy hopes to deliver on this promise for $1 per dwelling.

But, in the near term, cognitive tutors are helping underprivileged children learn math three times faster and perform much better on tests. Intelligent tutors are now in 4 percent of the nation’s schools and attracting wide interest among government agencies.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education granted Carnegie Mellon $1.4 million to test a Web-based tutor for middle school students taking standardized exams required by the federal "No Child Left Behind Act,” which commands public schools to demonstrate yearly improvement as measured by students’ standardized test scores. The tutor tailors instruction to meet the specialized needs of each student, provides actionable feedback to teachers and even predicts a student’s test score.

The Assistment System, as it’s called, draws upon the proven success of Carnegie Mellon’s popular Cognitive Tutor®, a comprehensive secondary mathematics curricula and computer-based tutoring program developed by John R. Anderson, the Richard King Mellon University Professor of Psychology and Computer Science. The Cognitive Tutor® has been commended by the Education Department and is in use in 1,500 schools nationwide.

Several of the region’s local foundations provided seed support in the 1990s for initial research and development of the cognitive tutor technology. Today, some of these same foundations continue to provide grant support to take the technology to the next level and to ensure that children most in need are benefiting from its educational power.

The Grable Foundation is proud to support this cutting-edge research at Carnegie Mellon that is benefiting the educational development of children across the nation,” said Foundation Chairman Charles R. Burke Jr. “It is clear that cognitive tutors have vastly improved students’ academic performance, and that this innovative teaching method is superior to traditional instruction. It is our hope that the tutors will be used more widely in the future, and that Carnegie Mellon continues to create innovations that positively impact our future.”

Eighth-grade teachers in the Worcester(Mass.) Public Schools, an urban district with a high percentage of minority and low-income students, are testing the Web-based tutor in collaboration with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Carnegie Learning, Inc., a Carnegie Mellon spin-off that manufactures the tutors. Sixty-four percent of African-Americans and 74 percent of Hispanics in the district failed the standardized exams last year.

For students who cut their teeth on computer games, the tutors are delivering individualized instruction, ample practice, immediate feedback, coaching, "just-in-time" and "on-demand" help, and positive reinforcement. This puts students in control of their own learning and keeps them on task. Teachers then can spend more time with students who need additional intervention.

The Cognitive Algebra Tutor course is the most successful product of Carnegie Mellon’s Pittsburgh Advanced Cognitive Tutor (PACT) Center. Originally created in the early 1990s with support from the National Science Foundation, The Department of Education and several Pittsburgh foundations, the Cognitive Algebra Tutor had reached 75 schools by 1998-99 through PACT Center dissemination. At that point, PACT created the spin-off company Carnegie Learning which by 2004 had brought the tutors to more than 1,500 schools across the country.

Smart tutoring systems also promise to radically transform online learning because they can act as coaches, offering hints when students stumble in the problem-solving process. Hypertext-based online learning applications just give students a certain number of chances to find a correct answer before providing the right one.

However, authoring model-tracing tutors is time-consuming and expensive, and requires rare Ph.D. level cognitive analysis and artificial intelligence programming skills. It has been estimated that it takes 100 to 1,000 hours to develop one hour of tutor instruction. In order to address this bottleneck, Carnegie Mellon researchers are developing a suite of authoring tools called Cognitive Tutor Authoring Tools , or CTAT, to make tutor development easier and faster for current developers and to make it possible for educators without technical expertise.

Related Links:
Cognitive Tutors
Raj Reddy
Herb Simon
U.S. Department of Education
No Child Left Behind Act
$1.4 million
John R. Anderson
The Grable Foundation
Worcester Public Schools
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Carnegie Learning, Inc.
Cognitive Algebra Tutor
PACT Center
National Science Foundation
Cognitive Tutor Authoring Tools