Inquire is an iPad app developed by Seattle based Vulcan Inc., that claims to be the world’s first intelligent textbook. The app presents an electronic version of Campbell Biology - a textbook used by first year University students in the US, in an interactive way that makes the complicated subjects covered easier to understand.
Inquire looks like another digital book but behind the scenes is a machine-readable concept map of the 5,000 or so ideas covered in the book, along with information on how they are all related. Students can type in any question and Inquire will use artificial intelligence to build a new page answering the specific query.
A question like – “What does a protein do?” is first converted it into a more structured query, such as “What is the function of a protein?”, and the system uses this to search and find results from the concept map.
If a student highlights a piece of complicated text, a whole host of simpler questions pop up on the right hand side. The answers to the questions help explain specific concepts and how they fit into the field being discussed. Clicking on complicated terms like ‘electrophoresis’ or ‘polymerase’ produces a pop up window with a succinct definition.
In an experiment carried out in Cupertino, Californian students using the Inquire system scored significantly higher in short tests than those using a traditional paper version of Campbell Biology. “When we did our assessment, we didn’t see any Ds or Fs, which we did see in the control groups,” says Debbie Frazier, a high school biology teacher who works on the project. “Our students could use Inquire as a tool and ask it questions that they might be embarrassed to ask a teacher in person because it makes them feel stupid.”
However, it may be a while before we see Inquire-like systems for every textbook in Irish Universities. After two years, only half of the Campbell Biology tome has been encoded to work on the app and it will take a team of 18 biologists until the end of 2013 to complete the app. This is not a ‘one size fits all solution’ for all subjects.
Still, as a standalone product this is an impressive tool. It allows students to use the knowledge of the Internet in a textbook-like structure rather than searching for terms on random websites. The breakthrough needed though is a system that can adapt to, and explain, any subject.
The video below explains the Inquire system in more detail.