Online tutor helps general public turn COVID-19 prevention efforts into action

May 06, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the ongoing global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, several individual acts have been suggested or required to help mitigate its spread — practicing physical distancing, wearing a facemask and handwashing being the most common. But while these concepts seem easy to understand, they can be difficult for people to implement and maintain.

To help individuals put these ideas into practice, Penn State researchers have developed a comprehensive online tutor to educate the general public about the science behind COVID-19 and appropriate steps anyone can take to help reduce its transmission. The tutor is accessible at and requires a free account. 

"Everyone knows you're supposed to wash your hands, but when? You're supposed to use soap, but which kinds work effectively and what materials such as baby wipes or face cream may be ineffective?” noted Frank Ritter, professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology and the tutor’s team leader. “Public health information needs to be practiced for it to be effective.”  

The “Skills To Obstruct Pandemics,” or STOP, tutor guides the user through a series of lessons and quizzes focused on understanding how the virus is transmitted and what actions they can take to mitigate its spread. 

The tutor is built on Ritter’s declarative-to-procedural tutoring system architecture, which aims to turn factual knowledge into semi-autonomous, procedural actions through practice. His research explores how learning the steps to take a simple action and practicing it — such as an individual washing their hands and then turning off the water and light without recontamination — can have a significant impact on their risk of infection and the overall spread of the virus.

Said Ritter, “We’re all focused on flattening the curve and keeping it flat, but it takes small, daily actions from a tremendous number of people to do that. Understanding the virus, how it’s transmitted, and how you can protect yourself and others is critical until a pharmaceutical intervention is available.”

The tutor covers a wide range of topics, including the basic microbiology of COVID-19, the benefits of herd immunity, and the differences between quarantine and isolation. While the tutor focuses specifically on the novel coronavirus, nearly all of the concepts are applicable to other respiratory pathogens. 

“Anyone can tell you this information, but you need to practice it and commit it to memory to the point it becomes muscle memory. It needs to be a procedural skill," he explained.

The team includes members from Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, College of Nursing, and the Huck institutes for Life Sciences, and is advised by outside experts from the Society for Disaster Medicine and Public Health. Funding for the project was provided by the Office of Naval Research, the Applied Research Laboratory, the College of IST, and the Applied Cognitive Science Lab.


Last Updated May 06, 2020