Having first emerged in France in the early 2010s, new forms of remote learning are attracting growing attention in the academic world, with an increasing need for educational continuity in the context of a health emergency. The FUN*platform, launched in 2013, is now offering MOOCs on varied subjects provided by a number of higher education institutes (universities, engineering schools, business schools, etc.).
Aïana: adapting digital tools to the needs of users
Although founded on the principle of courses that are free and open to all, there are questions surrounding the accessibility of these online courses when used by people with disabilities or learning difficulties.
With this in mind, Hélène Sauzéon and Pascal Guitton, professors of psychology and IT respectively at the University of Bordeaux and members of the Flowers* and Potioc* project teams at the Inria Bordeaux Sud-Ouest Research Centre, decided to bring their skillsets together. Designed to improve accessibility to digital educational tools, including MOOCs, Aïana - the name given to the software they developed - draws on the scientific complementarity of their teams (see inset).
Improving the ergonomics of a digital tool is chiefly of benefit to people with disabilities, but the solution the two researchers came up with is primarily inclusive:
We are interested in the overall accessibility of these tools, focusing on the needs of users irrespective of whether they have cognitive issues,
explain Hélène Sauzéon and Pascal Guitton.
Bespoke tools aimed at promoting inclusivity
What makes Aïana original is that it offers different solutions which can be configured in order to either reduce attentional demands or to compensate for defective cognitive functions in individuals suffering from cognitive issues (attention, memory, language, social interaction, etc.) or physical impairments (visual, auditory, motor, etc.). “The ergonomics of the software were designed based on participatory methods, engaging with future users suffering from cognitive issues as well as clinical and educational experts in order to determine the relevant accessibility functions”, explains Pascal Guitton.“Aïana can thus be used to configure a MOOC reader to suit individual accessibility requirements.”
The program separates flows of information from the MOOC (words spoken by the teacher, written slides, additional information, etc.) in order to customise and tailor the content to suit the information processing capacities of each individual user, in addition to their ergonomic preferences; users are also in control of configuring their own interface. Aïana also offers specific functions such as enriched educational content, browsing by educational concept, lessons transcribed in PDF format, etc.
“The choices we made during the design process were guided by future users, but also by results from cognitive psychology studies: what this means is that the cognitive load of the content (the effort required to understand, memorise and learn it) can be adapted to individual capacities”, explains Hélène Sauzéon.
Aiana - improving learning
Aiana was first used in a MOOC on the theme of digital accessibility. Made available for four five-week sessions on the FUN platform, more than 12,000 people signed up to it. “We were able to evaluate the effectiveness of the solutions on offer among a wide range of participants: we had 646 in total, 87 of whom had a declared disability.”
The evaluation took various types of data into account: the follow-up rate for the MOOC, the usage frequency for its accessibility functions, the learning performance of participants, estimates of their cognitive load and the usability of Aiana, as well as how stimulating it was. The initial results were highly encouraging for the researchers. “The data analysis showed that, with Aiana, the percentage of people with disabilities following the course went up, use of the accessibility functions by these individuals limited disengagement and, most importantly, everyone learned with the same level of performance”, explains Hélène Sauzéon. “Although more effort is required from individuals with disabilities, the accessibility the program offers makes it possible to achieve the desired result. This increases their desire to learn and is likely to change their relationship with their learning difficulty.”
Off the back of this success, the researchers are now looking to promote the tool’s transfer potential in other fields. “Aïana can be adapted for use on a range of different digital education platforms, and we are looking for partners to expand into other sectors (such as continuing education) or other applications (such as remote communication systems)”,concludes Pascal Guitton. The overarching ambition is to improve users’ self-esteem and to make people want to learn how to learn.
Flowers/Potioc: two teams, one inclusive software program
Drawing on complementary research results from the fields of psychology and computing, Aïana responds to the need to adapt digital technology to all users.
• Flowers is an interdisciplinary research team. Their work involves studying the mechanisms enabling robots and humans to learn new skills autonomously, continuously and cumulatively. What makes this team original is that they focus on intrinsic motivation as the key ingredient in learning when it comes to overcoming educational obstacles.
• The work carried out by the Potioc research team focuses primarily on human/computer interaction, using mixed reality tools (headsets, screens, etc.) and brain-computer interfaces. Potioc’s main field of application is education.
* FUN: France université numérique - The French Digital University
MOOC: Massive Open Online Course.
Flowers (Flowing Epigenetic Robots and Systems), a team that is a joint-undertaking of the Inria Bordeaux Sud-Ouest Research Centre and Ensta ParisTech, directed by Pierre-Yves Oudeyer.
Potioc: a project team that is a joint undertaking of the University of Bordeaux, the Inria Bordeaux Sud-Ouest Research Centre and the CNRS, directed by Martin Hachet.