Computer Assisted Instruction

views updated May 29 2018

Computer Assisted Instruction

Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) is defined as the use of computers and software applications to teach concepts or skills. IBM developed one of the first instructional computer systems in the 1960s using minicomputers . From the 1960s to the 1980s, IBM produced a handful of these 1500 series computers for the military and several universities. These units, contained in special trailers, consisted of complete workstations: one large central processing unit (CPU) , one instructor's station, and sixteen student terminals. The trailer was hauled from place to place as needed.

Pennsylvania State University and the University of Alberta (Canada) were two of the biggest advocates of the 1500 series stations and provided a great deal of early research on computer assisted instruction. Researchers from several universities, such as from the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC), continue the effort to identify the best methods and tools for using interactive computer programs to enhance learning.

Computer assisted instruction has changed radically since the 1500 series. Computers are found in a growing number of homes and schools, and a variety of applications exist to use the computer to teach. The military has continued to be a significant advocate of computer assisted instruction to teach large numbers of trainees a multitude of jobs, including teaching pilots how to fly with the use of flight simulators. Without question, "e-learning" is a growing economic sector. In 2000, e-learning (electronic-learning) was a $2.2 billion dollar business. By 2003, it is expected to be worth $11.4 billion.

Learning Management Systems

One growing trend among schools is to use a powerful application called a Learning Management System (LMS). Some companies that sell LMSs provide a service to the schools. Students, using either the school-owned computers or computers in the schools provided by the company, connect to the service's web site to access a curriculum chosen by the faculty. The students access the educational resources for a specific period of time over a specific number of weeks; the frequency and duration vary from program to program.

The advantages of using an LMS are compelling. Many students are eager to use such a site because of its "cool factor," which may motivate them to do well. The curriculum can be adjusted to focus on specific areas of weakness, whether for the entire class or for an individual. Any or all students can be monitored for progress.

Among the disadvantages to implement an LMS, schools must have a reliable Internet system installed, which can be a major and expensive project. Another disadvantage is that the programs themselves can cost up to $30,000, a price that might not include the cost of computers. The effectiveness of these programs, as compared to conventional instruction, is also still open to debate among critics and proponents of learning management systems.

A variety of LMSs are available from different manufacturers. Choosing among them can be quite difficult, as they have considerable variation of methodology and depth. They also work on several different hardware platforms. Construction of each course must be done on an individual basis, and so there are no "plug and play" options. Also, there are no universally accepted standards to compare programs. The Shared Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM (developed by the U.S. government), is one set of standards gaining acceptance.

Electronic Books

Electronic books, especially electronic textbooks, are another form of computer assisted instruction. E-textbooks offer several advantages over print textbooks. They can be updated quickly and easily at a far cheaper price than conventional textbooks. Complex images and concepts, such as molecular biology, can be illustrated in interactive, three-dimensional presentations, instead of traditional drawings or photographs on paper, to aid in understanding. A laptop computer, to which e-textbooks can be downloaded, weighs a fraction of several paper textbooks and occupies less space. Their use would address the growing concern about overweight backpacks for students of varying ages. Teachers could cut and paste curriculum text in a customized format for students. Assignments and homework could be posted on a server. Such a system would need little introduction or training for students, so many of whom are already media savvy and using online resources for learning-related activities.

There are drawbacks to using e-textbooks, however. The initial investment of computers and software can be costly. In some programs, graphics (such as maps, charts, graphs, and pies) might not be accessible. Compatibility of programs with other learning software might be a problem. However, despite these concerns, some experts predict that the sales of e-textbooks will net $3.2 billion in 2005, and will consist of 25 percent of all textbook sales by that time.

Electronic Performance Support Systems

Electronic Performance Support Systems, or EPSS, is another form of computer assisted instruction. Gloria Gery, an educational software expert in Tolland, Massachusetts, began developing EPSS in the early 1990s. The purpose of EPSS is to help automate a job. TurboTax is an example of an EPSS. Once the program is started, the user is prompted to answer a series of financial questions. When finished, the program computes the complete tax return for the user. The program can print out a copy of the results for the user, and if directed to do so, will even send an electronic copy to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

EPSS has found uses in many fields. Auto mechanics use an EPSS to diagnose car trouble. Travel agents make reservations with one. Cornerstone, an EPSS used by the NASD (a Wall Street self-regulatory organization) helps auditors do their jobs. The sale and leasing of cars is simplified with the help of an EPSS.

People often believe their jobs are too creative or complex for EPSS, but in many cases they are mistaken. In jobs that require human judgment, EPSS offers a series of alternatives to which the user can refer. As a result, employees can assume more complex job responsibilities after much shorter training periods and with significantly higher accuracy than would be likely with traditional training or job support structures. Hiring employees becomes cheaper. Because employees do not need to be so highly trained, the pool of applicants is much bigger, which is a benefit for employers. There is a downside to EPSS. The reduced need for better-educated individuals and shorter training periods could reduce the need for highly educated employees, resulting in lower salaries in many job categories.

see also Educational Software; Library Applications; Logo.

Mary McIver Puthawala


Alexander, Steve. "Learning CurveUncertainty Surrounding Standards and Rising Costs Can Make Choosing a Learning Management System a Difficult Lesson." InfoWorld 23, no. 23 (2001): 59.

Sheppard, Robert. "March of the Laptops: Is Technology Overtaking the Classroom?" MacLean's, November 2, 1998: 86(1).

Windman, Russell. "Lessons LearnedeWeek Labs Grades Tools That Build Lessons for Distance Learners." ZDNet; eWeek, May 14, 2001: 28.

Internet Resources

"The IBM 1500: Historical Perspectives." University of Alberta Web Site. <>


views updated Jun 11 2018

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