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Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216

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Computers in Human Behavior

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Learning with personalized recommender systems: A psychological view

Jrgen Buder , Christina Schwind
Knowledge Media Research Center, Konrad-Adenauer-Str. 40, 72072 Tbingen, Germany

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: This paper explores the potentials of recommender systems for learning from a psychological point of
Available online 29 September 2011 view. It is argued that main features of recommender systems (collective responsibility, collective
intelligence, user control, guidance, personalization) t very well to principles in the learning sciences.
Keywords: However, recommender systems should not be transferred from commercial to educational contexts
Recommender systems on a one-to-one basis, but rather need adaptations in order to facilitate learning. Potential adaptations
Learning are discussed both with regard to learners as recipients of information and learners as producers of data.
Moreover, it is distinguished between system-centered adaptations that enable proper functioning in
educational contexts, and social adaptations that address typical information processing biases. Implica-
tions for the design of educational recommender systems and for research on educational recommender
systems are discussed.
2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction unrated items can be predicted. A common method to predict pref-

erences is through collaborative ltering (Sarwar, Karypis, Konstan,
When we ponder over the movie that we would like to see next & Riedl, 2001) which mostly comes in two varieties: In user-based
weekend, or whether the new restaurant in town is worth checking ltering, the behavioral prole of a target user will be compared to
out, we often rely on the experience and recommendations of the proles of other users, and recommendations for a particular
friends and other people who we trust to be knowledgeable about item will be derived from those users who are most similar to
our tastes and preferences. Getting good recommendations be- the target user. The second method is item-based ltering where
comes an important issue when the number of viable options is the overall rating differences among items will be set against the
too large to be perused by an individual person. Internet servers prole of a target user to arrive at personalized recommendations.
provide access to vast amounts of information, and consequently, Personalized recommender systems are often used in
offering recommendations is one of the most pressing problems e-commerce (Schafer, Konstan, & Riedl, 1999), as the ability to sug-
for the design of electronic environments. It can be said that search gest products that are tailored to the needs and preferences of cus-
engines provide recommendations, as a list of search results is or- tomers provides a unique selling point. However, in recent years
dered through link analysis algorithms that show most linked-to, the potential of personalized recommender systems for non-com-
and thereby most relevant Web pages on top (Brin & Page, 1998). mercial purposes has begun to be explored, e.g. in educational con-
Similarly, a bestseller list on a commercial Website can be regarded texts. Several educational recommender systems have been
as providing recommendations. However, in these cases the rec- designed that recommend a broad range of items, among them soft-
ommendations are generic, i.e. different users receive the same ware functionalities (Linton & Schaefer, 2000), learning resources on
or highly similar output. In contrast, personalized recommender the Web (Geyer-Schulz, Hahsler, & Jahn, 2001; Recker, Walker, &
systems try to achieve the gold standard of recommendations in Lawless, 2003), Web 2.0 resources (Drachsler et al., 2010), foreign
real life by mimicking a person who is not only very knowledge- language lessons (Hsu, 2008), learning objects (Lemire, Boley,
able about a topic, but also takes the individual tastes and prefer- McGrath, & Ball, 2005), test items and assignments (Rafaeli, Barak,
ences of users into account. Dan-Gur, & Toch, 2004), lecture notes (Farzan & Brusilovsky,
Personalized recommender systems capture the traces that 2005), or entire courses (Farzan & Brusilovsky, 2006). The applica-
users leave in an environment, either through page visits or expli- tions cover very different areas of learning and education like use
cit ratings of items, and they are based on the assumption that of library systems (Geyer-Schulz, Hahsler, Neumann, & Thede,
page visits or high ratings are indicative of user preferences. From 2003), informal learning (Drachsler, Hummel, & Koper, 2009), mo-
data about visited or rated items, preferences on not-visited or bile learning (Andronico et al., 2003), learning at the workplace
(Aehnelt, Ebert, Beham, Lindstaedt, & Paschen, 2008), or within
health education (Fernandez-Luque, Karlsen, & Vognild, 2009).
Corresponding author. Tel.: +49 7071 979 326; fax: +49 7071 979 100.
Many papers on personalized recommender systems focus on
E-mail addresses: (J. Buder), (C.
technical issues and problems, the ultimate question being: How

0747-5632/$ - see front matter 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
208 J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216

do we manage to deliver the most accurate recommendation for so-called neighborhood for our student, i.e. a number of users that
the current purposes? This paper, however, takes a somewhat dif- gave the most similar ratings to her. Once this set of neighbors is
ferent approach: It explores the psychological aspects of personal- established, the system goes through all publications that our stu-
ized recommender systems, with the ultimate question being: dent has not rated yet, and identies those publications that re-
How do people react to and act upon recommender systems? This ceived the highest average ratings from the students
question will be addressed with particular emphasis on the use of neighborhood. In the recommender interface, the system provides
recommender systems in educational contexts. an output of the top 10 publications; these items constitute the
Knowing the psychological impact of recommendations on recommendations. As the student (and, by the use of similarity
users can be helpful for practitioners and researchers alike. If we metrics, her neighborhood) have a non-standard taste, this list
have a better idea how people react to recommender systems, might differ strongly from the original, bestseller-like list. If a pub-
we can improve algorithms and interfaces in ways that make using lication is recommended that the student does not know, she
the system more efcient and satisfactory. Understanding how might order it. If she likes it (gives a high rating), she will become
users contribute data to recommender systems is important for more similar to her neighbors; if the recommendation was bad and
practitioners, as problems like low participation can impede sys- she gives a low rating, a new neighborhood might emerge, result-
tem performance. From a research perspective, a better under- ing in slightly different, adjusted recommendations. This ongoing
standing of the psychological impacts of recommender systems cycle between individual activities (selecting, rating) and system
can inform various elds, such as educational psychology (instruc- activities (aggregating, ltering) rests on ve principles of recom-
tional design, educational technology), social psychology (persua- mender system design (see Fig. 1).
sion, trust building), business administration (marketing), or First, recommender systems rely on collective responsibility.
computer science (machine learning, HCI). In our digital library example, the data on which book recom-
The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 explores how the mendations are based were generated by a community of peers
key characteristics of personalized recommender systems t into (Resnick & Varian, 1997). This is in contrast to ofine contexts
current thought in the learning sciences. Section 3 discusses spe- where recommendations often come from dedicated individuals
cic requirements that recommender systems must fulll in order like teachers, mentors, or reviewers. Recommender systems do
to support learning processes, both with regard to two learner not hand particular power to dedicated individuals, but shift
roles and two types of adaptation. This discussion leads to four responsibility and accountability towards the user collective. A
conjectures about how recommender systems should be adapted similar principle of collective responsibility can be found in the
for educational contexts. Section 4 integrates the ndings, and pro- learning sciences (Scardamalia, 2002) where many scholars have
vides an outlook on future research. suggested moving from a traditional, teacher-centered education
towards a peer-centered education (Brown et al., 1993). In peer-
2. Recommender systems and the learning sciences centered education as well as in recommender systems, a power
structure with at hierarchies emerges. Moreover, in both elds
Designing and implementing workable recommender systems it is assumed that peer efforts will lead to high-quality output:
can be quite burdensome. Apart from a technological infrastruc- The learning from peer-centered education should be at least
ture that needs to store data about each possible combination of as high as in teacher-centered education; similarly, recommen-
items and user, thereby generating substantial server load, a criti- dations derived from a community should at least be as good
cal mass of users is one of the main roadblocks towards successful as those from dedicated experts.
implementation (Glance, Arregui, & Dardenne, 1999). If the com- Second, recommender systems exhibit collective intelligence.
munity of people who generate data is too small, recommenda- For instance, if a particular book is recommended to our student,
tions become less precise. This begs the question of whether it is this recommendation cannot be traced back to the behavior of
useful to implement personalized recommender systems in educa- any individual user. Rather, it is the behavior of the user collec-
tional contexts. In order to answer this question, an example of a tive (or in the case of user-based collaborative ltering, the
ctitious educational recommender system is introduced. This neighborhood) that is responsible for the recommendation. As
example will be used to illuminate main principles of recom- it was shown empirically that computed recommendations are
mender systems design, and these principles will be compared to sufciently correlated with the actual ratings of a user (Herlock-
principles in the learning sciences. er, Konstan, Borchers, & Riedl, 1999) it can be argued that these
In our example, a psychology student is trying to nd good re- systems exhibit collective intelligence (Malone, Laubacher, &
search literature for her Masters thesis. She logs into a digital li- Dellarocas, 2009). This idea resonates with the notion of group
brary Website which operates a recommender system on cognition in the learning sciences, particularly in research on
academic publications. Lets assume that she has never used the computer-supported collaborative learning (Stahl, 2006). Accord-
system before. The recommender might provide her with a list of ing to this view, the output of a collaborative learning group, e.g.
the most popular publications on her thesis topic. This list would their discussions or the constructed artifacts, cannot be mean-
be similar to a bestseller list. Adjacent to each entry is a slider ingfully or completely traced back to individual group members,
where she can rate each publication on a range from 1 (uninterest- but rather arise through complex interactions among the constit-
ing) to 5 (highly interesting). She reads through the list, and selects uents (group members). It can be said that these emergent prop-
some publications that she knows. Interestingly, she dislikes some erties of groups can also be found in the way that recommender
of the popular publications, and expresses this through low ratings. systems operate.
Though our student does not interact with other users of the rec- Third, recommender systems are based on user control. A book
ommender system, she is part of a larger community of others that is suggested by a recommender system differs from a book
who have also selected and rated thousands of publications. As that is a mandatory part of a course syllabus. Our student has
shown in Fig. 1, selecting entries and rating them constitutes the the choice to follow the recommendation or not. Recommender
activity of individuals within the community. The recommender systems preserve user autonomy, and they do not prescribe
system then aggregates all the ratings from the communitys rating courses of action to be taken by a person. They typically support
database, and lters this information according to specied algo- information search and retrieval, i.e. tasks of a self-directed,
rithms. For instance, if the recommender system employs user- exploratory and often open-ended nature. In this regard, they cater
based collaborative ltering algorithms, one step is to dene a to modern constructivist epistemologies in the learning sciences
J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216 209

Fig. 1. Flow chart of the recommendation process. Principles of recommender systems are embedded.

that also stress the importance of self-regulated learning 3. A psychological account of educational recommender
(Boekaerts & Minnaert, 1999), or discovery learning (Bruner, 1961). systems
Fourth, recommender systems provide guidance. The student in
the digital library example is not faced with a huge list of all pub- Much attention on recommender systems has been devoted to
lications on her thesis topic, but already receives a ltered list of issues of technical implementation, mathematical modeling, and
those titles that are most relevant to her search. By giving direc- performance metrics (Adomavicius & Tuzhilin, 2005). However,
tions and offering hints that a user may or may not take into ac- there is a growing awareness that non-technical issues should be
count, recommender systems are equivalent to an information taken into account in order to improve personalized recommender
signpost (Konstan & Riedl, 2003). Providing guidance is also a cen- systems, particularly if these systems are applied in non-standard
tral issue in the learning sciences as too much learner autonomy settings like education. Consequently, some authors began theoriz-
can be perceived as burdensome without some form of explicit ing about recommender system by including educational consider-
or implicit structuring. As a consequence, principles in the learning ations (Drachsler, Hummel, et al., 2009; Manouselis, Drachsler,
sciences often suggest using scaffolds (Vygotsky, 1978), scripts Vuorikari, Hummel, & Koper, 2011; Tang & McCalla, 2005; Wang,
(Kollar, Fischer, & Hesse, 2006), or awareness functionalities 2007). The present paper also focuses on recommender systems
(Engelmann, Dehler, Bodemer, & Buder, 2009) in order to provide in educational contexts, but it is novel in taking a psychological
guidance for self-regulated activities. The key is to strike a delicate point of view on the topic. Relatively little is known about how
balance between autonomy and guidance so that guidance neither people react to and act upon information presented via recom-
becomes too immaterial nor too directive. mender systems, and a psychological account might offer valuable
Fifth, recommender systems are personalized, i.e. they sug- hints on barriers and potentials.
gest items that are adaptively tailored to the needs, interests, In the following, we propose a conceptualization that sheds a
and preferences of a user. As mentioned in the digital library light on various issues that have to be taken into account when
example, the recommendations for our student were not a gen- designing for educational recommender systems. The account is
eric, bestseller-like list of most popular publications, but con- structured along a distinction that was made by Xiao and Benbasat
sisted of items that were personalized with regard to her taste. (2007) in a conceptual paper on recommender systems in
The notion of personalization also plays an important role in e-commerce contexts. However, while these authors put the tech-
the learning sciences: Different learners do not benet to the nology into the center by distinguishing between input character-
same degree from uniform types of instruction (Cronbach & istics (data that a recommender system gets) and output
Snow, 1977), and there is general consensus that instructional characteristics (data that a recommender system displays), we
material should be adapted to the knowledge, the needs, and make the same distinction from a learner viewpoint. In other
the abilities of learners. Consequently, learning technologies such words, our account distinguishes between a recipient role where
as intelligent tutoring systems (Anderson, Boyle, & Reiser, 1985) learners are confronted with recommended items and a producer
or adaptive hypermedia environments (Brusilovsky, 2001) tailor role where learners generate data that are the basis for system
information to the needs and abilities of learners. Recommender computations. The distinction between different roles (recipient
systems are based on the same general idea by matching their vs. producer) serves as a structural element for the remainder of
output to a users historically developed prole. this paper. For each role, two issues of recommender system adap-
Of course, the identied principles of the learning sciences tation for educational contexts will be discussed. The rst issue re-
shifting responsibility towards peers, harnessing collective intelli- fers to system-centered adaptations: In order to work properly in
gence, enabling user control, providing scaffolds, and tailoring to educational contexts, recommender systems must provide the
needs, abilities, and interests are embedded within many infor- right kind of information so that learning from recommendations
mation technologies, but personalized recommender systems com- is enabled (recipient role). Moreover, proper functioning of recom-
bine all of these principles. In this regard, they exhibit features that mender systems requires that user generate data on which system
have the potential to leverage learning processes. computations can be performed (producer role). Apart from these
However, the t of recommender systems into learning con- basic, system-centered adaptations the second issue explored for
texts by no means implies that they can be transferred from their recipient roles and producer roles pertains to social adaptations.
current, mostly commercial context into educational contexts on a Human information processing in general, and learning in particu-
one-to-one basis. Rather, they must be adapted to the peculiarities lar can be characterized by bounded rationality (Simon, 1959).
of educational scenarios. Section 3 addresses the issues that have Navigation and selection of items in a recommender system (reci-
to be taken into account in order to fruitfully apply recommender pient role) and rating of items (producer role) are inuenced by a
systems in the educational realm. number of social psychological factors that can be linked to
210 J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216

bounded rationality. For instance, we do not always attend to the fact that humans show preferences for particular types of informa-
information from which we learn most (Tang & McCalla, 2005); tion, and these inherent biases are not always conducive to
and we do not always contribute information even if an entire learning. Several ways of adapting recommender systems are
community could benet from such an activity (Dawes, 1980). explored that are based on ideas such as increasing the persua-
Therefore, educational recommender systems can be improved siveness of recommendations, or providing counter-intuitive
by introducing social adaptations that facilitate those information recommendations.
processing biases that are conducive to learning or attenuate those
biases that are detrimental to learning.
These distinctions result in four structural elements (recipient 3.1.1. System-centered adaptation
role vs. producer role; system-centered adaptation vs. social adap- Whereas classical recommender systems in e-commerce try to
tation) for the following sections. In Sections 3.1 and 3.2 these is- adapt to the taste of a user, educational recommender systems
sues will be discussed based on theoretical considerations as well should be personalized with regard to learner knowledge and
as empirical results from various elds of research. Table 1 gives learning activities. For a number of reasons, learner knowledge
an overview of the literature that informed the following and learning activities are more difcult to assess than user taste
discussion. (Drachsler, Hummel, & Koper, 2009): Learning is a gradual process
extending over a longer stretch of time. In commercial contexts,
effectiveness of a recommender system can be assessed by captur-
3.1. Recipient role ing whether a customer has purchased a recommended item. In
contrast, learning does not have clear-dened and measurable
Relatively little is known about how recommendations are per- learning events that immediately provide information about rec-
ceived by users. Sections 3.1.1 and 3.1.2 describe issues pertaining ommender system effectiveness. Not only are constructs like
to the learners roles as recipients of information. First, Section 3.1.1 knowledge and activities difcult to assess, they are also con-
on system-centered adaptation addresses the fact that in classical stantly changing, and they rest on multiple sequential dependen-
e-commerce scenarios recommendations are tailored to user taste cies, i.e. at any given time there can be items that are too easy or
(Schafer et al., 1999). In contrast, for educational contexts recom- too difcult for a learner. This creates numerous situational con-
mendations must be tailored to learner knowledge and learner straints: An expert in a domain needs different recommendations
activities. Second, Section 3.1.2 on social adaptation refers to the than a novice; different learning styles (e.g. reproducing

Table 1
Overview of reviewed studies about recommender systems.

Study Type Field Finding

Recipient role and system-centered adaptation
Adomavicius and Tuzhilin (2011) Conceptual (review) Computer science Introduces context-aware algorithms
Burke (2002) Empirical (simulation) Computer science Compares different hybrid recommender algorithms
Drachsler, Hummel, & Koper Conceptual Educational technology Reects on differences between recommenders for learning vs.
(2009) commerce
Drachsler, Hummel, van den Empirical (eld Educational technology Hybrid system leads to higher efciency in learning
Berg, et al. (2009) experiment, N = 250)
Nadolski et al. (2009) Empirical (simulation) Computer science/ Collaborative ltering and hybrid systems outperform no
educational technology recommendations
Recipient role and social adaptation
McNee et al. (2006) Conceptual HCI Makes a case that personalities are ascribed to recommender
systems (basis for persuasion)
Schwind et al. (2011a) Empirical (online Educational psychology preference-inconsistency reduces conrmation bias, but leads to
experiment, N = 123) lower evaluation
Schwind et al. (2011b) Empirical (lab experiments, Educational psychology Preference-inconsistency reduces conrmation bias and leads to
N = 210) better elaboration
Tang and McCalla (2005) Conceptual Educational technology Argues that educational recommendations are not always liked
most (preference-inconsistency)
Yoo and Gretzel (2011) Conceptual Social psychology Discusses persuasion of recommender systems through source
Producer role and system-centered adaptation
Kramer (2007) Empirical (experiments; Marketing Task transparency leads to higher acceptance (makes a case for
N = 363) explicit ratings)
McNee et al. (2003) Empirical (eld HCI User control in sign-up increases loyalty (makes a case for explicit
experiment, N = 163) ratings)
Schein et al. (2002) Empirical (simulation) Computer science Argues for implicit elicitation to overcome cold-start
Xiao and Benbasat (2007) Conceptual Marketing Introduces distinction between implicit vs. explicit elicitation
Producer role and social adaptation
Harper et al. (2007) Empirical (eld Social psychology Social comparison increases rating activity
experiment, N = 268)
Herlocker et al. (2004) Conceptual HCI Makes a case that motivation for contribution can differ strongly
Ling et al. (2005) Empirical (eld Social psychology Goal setting and utility instructions increase rating activity
experiments, N = 2715)
Ludford et al. (2004) Empirical (eld Social psychology Utility instruction increases rating activity
experiment, N = 245)
Rashid et al. (2006) Empirical (eld HCI/social psychology Utility interface increases rating activity
experiment, N = 160)

Note: Classications into type of study and ndings are reported only as they pertain to this paper.
J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216 211

orientation, achieving orientation, and meaning orientation) (Ent- 2003). Moreover, involving learners into the very process of recom-
wistle, 1988) might require different recommendations; recom- mendations caters well to the spirit of learning as a constructive
mendations might ideally take metacognitive skills and strategies and collaborative activity. This leads to our rst conjecture:
(Weinstein & Mayer, 1986) into account; and they should be
adapted to the goals of a learner (Boekaerts, 1998) for instance, How to achieve system-centered adaptation for recipi-
a learner who wants to nd an explanation on a specic algebraic ents? Recommender systems must be context-aware in order to
problem needs different recommendations than a learner who correctly diagnose learner knowledge and learning activities. This
seeks for general resources on algebra. As Drachsler, Hummel, & can be accomplished either through machine intelligence (hybrid
Koper (2009) maintained, educational recommender systems recommender systems) or through involvement of learners into
would ideally be able to situationally identify those items that cor- the recommendation process itself (customization, feedback
respond to a learners zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, loops). It is an empirical question which of these two strategies
1978), the level of ability that the learner is able to master through is superior, but a tentative conclusion could be that learner
scaffolding. In other words, in order to adapt to learner knowledge involvement has additional educational benets.
and learning activities, recommender systems must be context-
aware (Adomavicius & Tuzhilin, 2011). The classical approach of 3.1.2. Social adaptation
collaborative ltering through the analysis of simple ratings might Information processing has a social dimension: It is colored
not be very helpful, as a high rating could mean that a learner by attitudes, judgments, stereotypes, and affective reactions
found an item easy, or challenging, or fun. However, there are dif- (Bandura, 1986). This lends a social dimension to the design of
ferent ways to achieve context-awareness. A rst strategy to make educational recommender systems as well. Some scholars hold
recommender systems context-aware is to use machine intelli- that computers are social actors (Nass, Moon, Morkes, Kim, &
gence, e.g. through so-called hybrid recommender systems (Burke, Fogg, 1997), or that they are persuasive technologies that can
2002). These combine recommender algorithms like collaborative exert social inuence (Fogg, 2003). More specically, the idea
ltering with content-based lters and/or learning modeling tech- that recommender systems are perceived as social actors is sup-
niques (Brusilovsky, 2001). By way of our digital library example ported by the observation that users ascribe a personality to
from Section 2, a publication recommender system could use a hy- them (McNee, Riedl, & Konstan, 2006). Personalized recom-
brid model that combines rating information with metadata. For mender systems mimic a knowledgeable person, a person that
instance, if our student gave a high rating for an article, the system does not only have information about a huge number of items,
could automatically increase the probability that other publica- but also about the tastes and preferences of a user. However,
tions from the same author are recommended. Ontologies, tags we do not always follow a recommendation by a human being,
and metadata can be used to describe learning items in more de- and of course the same might apply to recommendations from
tail, and modeling techniques can be used to describe learners in a recommender system. This raises questions about the condi-
more detail. Having ontologies can also help to address the prob- tions under which the selection of recommended items can be
lem of sequential dependencies among learning items, and they inuenced. In order to answer these questions, it is helpful to re-
might pave the way for systems that do not recommend isolated ect on biases in human information processing. Some of these
items, but actual learning paths (Drachsler, Hummel, & Koper, biases are conducive to learning and can be put to good use
2009). As to date, there are few examples of hybrid educational by making recommendations more appealing. Other biases in
recommender systems that go beyond a prototype development, information processing are detrimental to particular types of
let alone a full system evaluation. However, in a detailed computer learning, so recommender systems should be designed to over-
simulation study, Nadolski et al. (2009) found that different types come these biases. We now turn to conducive biases in the con-
of recommender systems yielded much better results (graduation text of literature on persuasion, followed by detrimental biases
percentages, user satisfaction, graduation times) than no recom- in the context of selective exposure literature.
mendations. Further, the authors found that hybrid recommender Dual-process models of persuasion have outlined the boundary
systems outperformed purely rating-based and purely ontology- conditions that determine whether people are more or less in-
based recommender systems, although not by a signicant margin. clined to follow a persuasive message such as a recommendation.
A real-world investigation of hybrid educational recommender According to the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo,
systems compared a group using a hybrid personalized recom- 1986), the degree to which a persuasive message is elaborated de-
mender system for learning activities with a no-recommendation pends on a recipients motivation and ability to process the mes-
control group (Drachsler, Hummel, van den Berg, et al, 2009). In sage. Low personal relevance of the message topic undermines
a usage study covering 4 months, they found that groups using motivation, whereas distraction during processing impedes ability.
the recommender system did not complete more activities, but If motivation and ability are high, messages are carefully scruti-
completed them faster, exhibited a greater variety of learning nized, and persuasion mainly depends on so-called message char-
paths, and expressed higher satisfaction. These examples show acteristics; in contrast, if motivation and/or ability are low,
that hybrid educational recommender systems are likely to have persuasion mainly depends on so-called source characteristics
measurable effects on learning-related variables. A second strategy (McGuire, 1969). As motivation and ability are not directly control-
to increase context-awareness does not rely on machine intelli- lable, design of educational recommender systems should try to
gence, but on involving learners into the recommendation process. unfold persuasive power through message characteristics and
For instance, learners could choose among different learning paths source characteristics. As to message characteristics, the variable
depending on their learning styles or concrete learning goals. that is most often associated with them is argument strength.
Moreover, dialogs could be provided that give learners an opportu- For instance, the elaboration likelihood model predicts that under
nity to feed back on the situational adequacy of received recom- conditions of high elaboration (high motivation and ability), a
mendations. While it appears that the learner involvement strong argument becomes persuasive, whereas a weak argument
strategy is less popular among system designers than the use of is likely to be rejected. As a consequence, the item pool of an edu-
hybrid recommender systems, it should be noted that active lear- cational recommender system should contain as many strong
ner involvement might have additional benets. For instance, lear- arguments as possible. A second way to inuence the persuasive-
ner control and customizability of system output are related to ness of a recommender system is through source characteristics,
higher satisfaction and trust (McNee, Lam, Konstan, & Riedl, i.e. perceived attributes of a sender (Yoo & Gretzel, 2011). For
212 J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216

instance, a message becomes more persuasive if a source is recommendations can help to facilitate critical thinking. This leads
perceived as having expertise or authority (Briol & Petty, 2009; to our second conjecture.
Cialdini, 2001). Recommender systems can trigger expertise cues
by providing recommendations on a wide range of topics, and How to achieve social adaptation for recipients? This can be
authority cues can be generated through third-party endorse- accomplished by considering biases in human information pro-
ments, reference to awards, or explanations that the recommended cessing. Learners are more likely to accept strong arguments and
items were suggested by experts. If an educational recommender arguments that are accompanied by expertise cues and authority
system is based on a pool of strong arguments, and if the system cues. Detrimental processing biases like conrmation bias can be
generates authority cues and/or expertise cues, it is likely to be- mitigated by explicitly recommending items that run counter to
come persuasive irrespective of learner characteristics like motiva- a learners preference. Actually recommending these items is a bet-
tion and ability. ter strategy than just making preference-inconsistent items avail-
While persuasion makes productive use of information process- able. The use of preference-inconsistent recommendations is
ing biases like the tendency to follow strong arguments, or author- helpful for educational settings that try to challenge a learners
ity-endorsed arguments, biases can also represent a hindrance to existing viewpoints and beliefs.
certain forms of learning. For instance, a robust nding in the liter-
ature on communication science holds that people are prone to 3.2. Producer role
selective exposure, i.e. they attend to only parts of the information
that is presented to them (Knobloch-Westerwick & Meng, 2009). In In Section 2 on recommender systems and the learning sciences
particular, many people exhibit conrmation bias, the tendency to it was argued that recommender systems are peer technologies
actively seek for information that conrms initial preferences that exhibit collective intelligence through the input of many indi-
(Jonas, Schulz-Hardt, Frey, & Thelen, 2001). The reason for this bias viduals. However, in order to generate accurate predictions and
can be traced back to dissonance theory (Festinger, 1954) which unfold collective intelligence, recommender systems are strongly
posits that people tend to avoid stimuli that create cognitive disso- dependent on data that express how users think about a given
nance. While conrmation bias is rarely addressed in the learning item. Consequently, the role of users as producers of these data
sciences, we believe that it can play a pivotal role in those areas of is a central issue in research on personalized recommender sys-
education where the goal is to challenge existing beliefs and opin- tems. In Sections 3.2.1 and 3.2.2 it is explored how recommender
ions. One such area is critical and open-minded thinking which in- systems should be adapted to cater to the peculiarities of educa-
volves that learners question not only other opinions, but also their tional scenarios. Like in the section on the recipient role, the dis-
own opinion (Stanovich & West, 1997). Critical thinking and unbi- cussion is structured by two issues. The rst issue pertains to
ased reasoning can be linked to educationally relevant constructs system-centered adaptation, and it is guided by the design consid-
like multiperspectivity (Spiro & Jehng, 1990) and informational eration of whether a recommender system should use explicit lear-
diversity (De Wit & Greer, 2008). However, in order to become crit- ner output like ratings, or whether implicit methods of capturing
ical thinkers, learners must overcome conrmation bias, but a clas- user data should be preferred. The second issue on social adapta-
sical recommender system would do little to avert this bias, as it tion then explores how detrimental learner behaviors like low con-
would suggest items that are consistent to a learners preference. tribution to a recommender system can be averted by making
What would be needed, then, is a recommender system that does productive use of those biases that are conducive to the production
the opposite, i.e. trying to capture the preferred opinions of learn- of rating data.
ers, and confronting them with opposing viewpoints. For instance,
if the student in our digital library example wants to write her 3.2.1. System-centered adaptation
Masters thesis on a particular theory, it might be useful to recom- Recommender systems rely on the output from users. This cre-
mend at least some publications that are critical of this theory. The ates a basic design decision of how these user data can be yielded.
efciency of preference-inconsistent recommendations in critical There are two fundamental ways to accomplish this goal, viz. im-
thinking contexts was investigated in our empirical work plicit vs. explicit elicitation methods (Xiao & Benbasat, 2007). Im-
(Schwind, Buder, & Hesse, 2011a; Schwind, Buder, & Hesse, plicit elicitation requires capturing user navigation (site visits,
2011b). Our experimental paradigm involved presenting prefer- dwell times on sites, purchases) and take these data as indicators
ence-consistent and preference-inconsistent information to learn- of user preferences. In contrast, explicit elicitation requires a ded-
ers who searched for information on the controversial topic of icated response of users, typically in the form of ratings on items.
neuro-enhancement. Simply making preference-inconsistent infor- There are a number of advantages associated with implicit prefer-
mation available was no sufcient strategy to overcome conrma- ence elicitation: It is unobtrusive, i.e. it does not burden a user with
tion bias, as participants in a no-recommendation control group the additional task of rating, thereby reducing the cold start prob-
selected preference-consistent information more frequently than lems that occur until the system has gathered enough preference
preference-inconsistent information. However, when preference- data to yield accurate predictions (Schein, Popescul, Ungar, &
inconsistent information was not only made available, but was rec- Pennock, 2002). Moreover, implicit preference elicitation might
ommended through visual highlighting, conrmation bias was be more objective than explicit ratings, as it does not involve a bias
strongly reduced. Moreover, preference-inconsistent recommen- of users to respond in a socially desirable way (Fisher, 1993). How-
dations improved elaboration, as exemplied by a less conrma- ever, explicit rating methods have a number of advantages as well.
tion-biased item recall, and by more divergent thinking patterns Kramer (2007) reported that explicit methods of eliciting user pref-
in subsequent essays. However, our studies have also shown that erences led to higher acceptance rates for recommendations than
preference-inconsistent items were less liked by learners than implicit and opaque methods. This led Xiao and Benbasat (2007)
preference-consistent items, a nding that mirrors Tang and to conclude that explicit methods might help users to gain insights
McCallas (2005) viewpoint according to which information that on their preferences and therefore increases decision quality. Im-
is most useful from an educational perspective is often not the plicit methods might lead to psychological reactance, a negative
one that is liked most. While this problem might be averted by reaction to a restriction of autonomy (Dillard & Shen, 2005),
making preference-inconsistent recommendations more appealing whereas explicit ratings are associated with user control, which
(e.g. by verbally framing them as challenges), our empirical in turn is related to satisfaction and trust in recommender systems
results are promising signs that these counter-intuitive (McNee et al., 2003). Another potential advantage of explicit rating
J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216 213

methods is that users might be better able than computers to make introducing social comparisons (Festinger, 1954). This was investi-
judgments on subjective and fuzzy rating categories (Norman, gated by Harper, Li, Chen and Konstan (2007). They gave bogus
1993). For instance, in the digital library example it would be dif- feedback to participants of the movie recommender system Movie-
cult for implicit elicitation methods to differentiate those publica- Lens which indicated that the number of ratings that an individual
tions that our student selected and subsequently regarded as has provided was lower, the same, or higher than a comparable
inappropriate from those publications that she found useful after group of community members, and contrasted this to a condition
reading the abstract. This problem would not have occurred if both without such feedback. It was shown that upward comparison
the inappropriate and the useful item had been explicitly rated. (feedback about under-performance) led to the highest number
Recommender systems in e-commerce have the primary goal to of produced ratings in the following week. Even downward com-
make users aware of items that might be interesting to them, parison (feedback about over-performance) led to a higher number
thereby increasing cross-sell of items. In this light, it is quite rea- of ratings than the control condition without social comparison
sonable not to burden users with additional rating activities and information. A different normative approach was investigated by
opt for implicit preference elicitation. In contrast, for educational Ling et al. (2005) who reported that setting of concrete norms
recommender systems the use of ratings might have additional and goals like rating a xed number of items led to higher produc-
benets, as explicit elicitation can be regarded as a form of partic- tivity than setting unspecic do your best-goals, at least when
ipation (Ling et al., 2005). Participation is a highly pervasive notion the goal seemed attainable. Taken together, it appears that making
in the learning sciences. For instance, the amount of contributions norms of a community salient can exert normative power which in
that a learner produces during interaction is regarded as an impor- turn increases productivity. The second strategy to appeal to the
tant antecedent of learning outcomes (Cohen, 1994). Participation social nature of recommender systems is by making ones contri-
requires learners to reect on an issue, thereby leading to deeper bution more valuable. The collective effort model (Karau &
elaboration (Kollar et al., 2006), and in this regard explicit rating Williams, 1993) posits that social loang will be reduced when
instructions can serve as a valuable metacognitive prompt (Palinc- people believe that their contribution is useful to a community.
sar & Brown, 1984). For this reason, explicit elicitation of user data Moreover, it states that people contribute more when they identify
through ratings appears to be a promising approach for educa- with similar others. In the digital library example of Section 2, our
tional recommender systems. This leads to our third conjecture: student had a taste that differed from the mainstream. In this re-
gard, her ratings are particularly valuable for the sub-group of How to achieve system-centered adaptation for produc- like-minded people. But she might neither know that her taste is
ers? Recommender systems can either be fueled by explicit elici- special, nor that there are like-minded people. Therefore it would
tation methods (ratings) or implicit methods. The positive link be helpful if some information on the utility of ratings were pro-
between participation and learning speaks in favor of explicit elic- vided. This issue has been investigated in three recommender-re-
itation methods rather than unobtrusive and implicit methods. lated studies. Two of these studies manipulated utility by telling
Through rating activities, learners are required to reect on the subjects that they either had a very unique taste (high utility) or
merits of a recommended item, and this might function as a valu- a very typical taste (low utility) (Ling et al., 2005; Ludford, Cosley,
able metacognitive prompting strategy. Frankowski, & Terveen, 2004). The authors conrmed the predic-
tion of the collective effort model that uniqueness instructions lead
3.2.2. Social adaptation to more contributions. A third study, conducted by Rashid et al.
In Section 3.1.2 on the recipient role it was argued that human (2006) used a more technology-oriented approach to employ util-
information processing has a social dimension and is colored by ity information. The authors created a recommender interface
biases, preferences, and habits. A similar case can be made for where each unrated item had a display that indicated how helpful
the producer role, particularly in cases of explicit elicitation it would be for target persons if it were rated. In line with the col-
through ratings. Rating an item represents a social dilemma lective effort model, it was found that displaying the rating utility
(Dawes, 1980). Such a dilemma occurs when (a) it appears rational led to higher contribution rates than a control condition. It was
for each individual to withhold rather than produce or share infor- also conrmed that people felt more motivated to contribute for
mation, and (b) it is better for the collective if every member con- the good of similar target persons than dissimilar others. Contrary
tributed rather than withheld information. This is the case for to expectations, fewer items were rated when the benet to one-
recommender systems where rating requires some effort, but the self was stressed. This is somewhat surprising, as the quality of rec-
immediate benet of rating is not evident to a user. Social dilem- ommendations for an individual increases with the number of
mas can lead to detrimental behaviors like social loang and ratings that this individual has produced. However Herlocker,
free-riding (Karau & Williams, 1993). As social loang directly im- Konstan, Terveen, & Riedl (2004) have pointed out that motivations
pedes the quality of a recommender system, this raises the ques- for user ratings can be quite different: Some users simply want to
tion of how this detrimental behavior can be averted. As users express themselves; some users are driven by social motivations
are highly likely to respond to social cues, the basic idea here is like helping others, or manipulating others; and for some users,
to emphasize the social aspects of a recommender system. While gaming the system is the main motivation to provide ratings in a
recommender systems are peer technologies, there is no direct recommender system. In all these examples, utility for oneself does
peer-to-peer interaction, and the community of users remains not play a major role. In contrast, making the social impact of ones
anonymous and invisible to an individual. However, by making recommendation salient is an effective method to boost rating
the community more visible, powerful social psychological mech- activities. This leads to our fourth conjecture.
anisms can be evoked. Two strategies are built on these mecha-
nisms, and their impact on the quantity of ratings has been How to achieve social adaptation for producers? This can be
investigated empirically. The rst strategy makes use of the nor- accomplished either by making group norms visible (through so-
mative power of groups, either through introduction of social com- cial comparisons or concrete goal setting), or by providing informa-
parisons or through goal setting. Depending on prevalent social tion about the usefulness that rating provides for (similar) others.
identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), individuals adhere to group norms, For educational contexts, the strategy of stressing the utility of rat-
and this adherence can even be stronger when members are anon- ings might be superior to the social comparison strategy, as both
ymous (Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 1995). If the group norm is upward and downward comparisons were reported to be associ-
about member productivity, rating quantity can be increased by ated with negative affect (Buunk, Collins, Taylor, van Yperen, &
214 J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216

Table 2
Contrast between e-commerce requirements and educational requirements with regard to recommender system design, and resulting design strategies for educational contexts.

Issue Requirement for e- Educational requirement Design strategy for educational recommender systems
Recipient role/system- Personalization with Context-aware personalization with regard Hybrid systems
centered adaptation regard to taste to knowledge/activities Learner feedback
Recipient role/social Persuasiveness; Persuasiveness; challenges and critical Strong arguments; expertise/authority cues; preference-
adaptation preference-consistency thinking inconsistent recommendations
Producer role/system- Low burden; implicit Participation, metacognitive stimulation Explicit ratings
centered adaptation elicitation
Producer role/social High number of ratings High number of ratings Providing utility information

Dakof, 1990). Moreover, providing utility information is more importantly, user activity should be minimized, e.g. by implicit
likely to appeal to the collaborative spirit that fuels recommender preference elicitation, or by employing hybrid systems with ontol-
systems. ogies and user modeling techniques. This strategy of minimal
interference might be useful in commercial contexts, though it
can be argued that it appears as somewhat outdated in an age
4. Conclusions where user-generated content has become so pervasive. However,
it is quite evident that such a strategy should not be adapted for
This paper explored the potentials of personalized recom- learning contexts. Educational recommender systems are not
mender systems in educational settings. It is argued that recom- geared at selling items, but at facilitating learning. Learning is an
mender systems t nicely to important principles in the learning active and constructive process (Vygotsky, 1978), therefore it
sciences: (1) Recommender systems are peer technologies that seems only natural to involve and engage learners in the very pro-
shift responsibility away from dedicated experts. (2) Recom- cess they undergo. This is reected in the suggested design strate-
mender systems are technologies where the quality of content is gies of Table 2: It can be helpful both for system performance and
not traceable to any individual output, but rather to the collective for learner satisfaction to provide customization options, and to
behavior of a community. (3) Recommender systems provide user give opportunities to leave feedback on system accuracy. Rating
control, thereby facilitating self-regulated, exploratory, and auton- of items should not be regarded as a burden to learning, but rather
omous learning. (4) Recommender systems provide guidance to as an opportunity for learning. Making the community visible by
learning activities. (5) Recommender systems are adaptively tai- emphasizing the utility that rating has for others fuels the collab-
lored to the needs and requirements of learners. orative spirit that is needed for effective recommender systems.
However, it would clearly be a mistake to apply standard rec- And nally, educational recommender systems should involve
ommender systems to learning scenarios without adapting them learners by challenging them. Rather than providing learners with
to educational needs. Section 3 of this paper structured issues sur- a strongly constrained environment, they should leave ample room
rounding educational applications of recommender systems with for exploration and confront learners with unexpected content,
regard to two roles that learners exhibit, viz. as recipients of infor- thus allowing for serendipity and learning through discovery. All
mation and as producers of data. For each of these two roles, two these differences between e-commerce and educational contexts
issues were discussed: One with regard to system-oriented adapta- call for an adaptation of personalized recommender systems so
tions that enable proper functioning of educational recommender that they can become powerful tools for learning.
systems, the other with regard to social adaptations that exert an Of course, this overview of the potentials of recommender sys-
inuence on how learners react to and act upon recommendations. tems in educational contexts is not exhaustive. For instance, we did
On the basis of theoretical and empirical ndings from various re- not cover interface issues, basically because we think that they do
search elds design-related questions were posed and answered. A not require specic adaptations for educational scenarios. Readers
summary of that discussion can be found in Table 2. The leftmost who are interested in these aspects might refer to usability studies
column of this Table represents the four issues that were raised (Herlocker, Konstan, & Riedl, 2000), studies showing serial position
in the discussion. The second and third columns contrast the effects for recommended items (Felfernig et al., 2007), or work on
requirements for classical recommender systems in e-commerce the display of ratings (Cosley, Lam, Albert, Konstan, & Riedl, 2003).
vs. educational recommender systems. And the rightmost column Our overview was also restricted to the impact of recommenda-
proposes design strategies for educational recommender systems. tions during learning, and we did not address general aspects of
Rather than repeating the issues discussed in preceding sec- recommender use, most of which is covered by literature on trust
tions, wed like to point out some recurring thoughts, particularly (Swearingen & Sinha, 2002). Finally, we focused on the most com-
about the differences between e-commerce recommender systems mon types of recommender systems, thereby excluding variations
and educational recommender systems. In classical e-commerce like recommender systems for groups (Buder & Schwind, 2011), or
scenarios, the main goal of designers is to increase cross-sell of people recommender (Cai et al., 2011).
items. The corresponding recommender systems can be character- Many of the design considerations that were suggested in this
ized by a number of typical features. These systems are adapted to paper rest on speculation. This is due to the scarcity of research
user taste, and they try to keep the potential burden of system in a relatively new eld. We hold that research on personalized
usage to a minimum. As a consequence, the solutions rely heavily recommender systems should not only focus on the development
on constraining system output, preferably through machine intel- of better algorithms and implementations, but should be comple-
ligence. Although there is some awareness among designers that mented by sound, empirical work on how learners react to and
recommender systems should support serendipity and diversity act upon recommender systems. In order to see whether the
of result lists (Ziegler, McNee, Konstan, & Lausen, 2005), the gen- assumptions of this paper can be conrmed, must be rejected, or
eral consensus seems to be that a recommender system should require renement, three types of research are needed. First, we
not come up with anything that is unexpected by a user. Most need more practical implementations of recommender systems
J. Buder, C. Schwind / Computers in Human Behavior 28 (2012) 207216 215

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