High school students soon will be able to get help with their chemistry and physics homework from a new online tutor that uses artificial-intelligence technology.

Starting this fall, Holt, Rinehart and Winston (HRW) will offer a subscription to the Quantum Intelligent Tutor with the purchase of its textbooks. The Quantum Intelligent Tutor, developed by Quantum Simulations Inc., is not specific to one textbook publisher, but through HRW, an intelligent, computer-based science tutor will be available to students and teachers for the first time, according to the company.

“Our market research shows that tutorial programs are the No. 1 supplement requested by teachers,” said Ellen M. Standafer, vice president of science product development at HRW, which is part of the Harcourt Education Group.

Traditionally a textbook publisher, HRW will sell the online tutor along with online versions of its textbooks this fall, so the company can offer its customers “a complete, integrated, multimedia learning experience for teachers and students.”

The company’s strategic approach to selling eLearning curricula and services reflects a growing trend among traditional textbook publishers, said Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates, an educational technology research and consulting firm.

But for internet-based educational content and services to be successful, publishers need to teach their customers that the internet has content worth paying for.

“It’s important for publishers and others to make the case to education customers that internet-based products have value and are not simply freebies,” Grunwald said.

What sets the Quantum Intelligent Tutor apart from other digital tutors, said Benny Johnson, president and chief executive of Quantum Simulations, is that it allows students to type in whatever problems they need help with. “If this is something that’s supposed to help you with your homework, it’s not going to be any use if it doesn’t know what the homework is,” he said.

Most computerized tutors depend on a database of questions, so they are limited in the choice of problems they can help with, Johnson said: “They can’t do anything unless you’ve anticipated [the problem] and you’ve put it in the database.”

Instead of storing problems and answers, the technology behind the Quantum Intelligent Tutor stores rules and principles.

“The program has to have the ability to think a little bit, instead of just memorizing the stuff in the database,” Johnson said.

The Quantum Intelligent Tutor covers science questions on balancing equations, learning elements, assigning oxidation numbers, mole concepts, measure concepts, and writing mathematical and chemical formulas.

When students log on to the tutor online, they can either type in their own equation or choose from a list of common problems. Then, the tutor guides the student through the problem step by step. At each step, it prompts the student with questions to ask that help explain why the problem is solved that way.

Richard Mathews, director of science for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, a pilot site for the technology, said he was impressed by the tutor because it was the first intelligent tutor designed specifically for science instruction that he has seen. It reminded him of the Cognitive Tutor for algebra developed by Carnegie Mellon University, he said.

Quantum is looking to distribute its tutor through other publishers, too, Johnson said.

Related links:
Quantum Simulations Inc.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Pittsburgh Public Schools