Ask 10 people what computer-assisted instruction (CAI) means, and you will get 10 different answers. Many models exist, but few are consistent in the minds of users, reviewers, or educators. Because of this, many software producers, instructional leaders, and technologists now speak of the multimedia classroom, which incorporates integrated student educational packages, teacher presentation software, recordkeeping materials, and internet access.

There are four terms used to describe what happens when you put computers in a classroom:

€ Computer-based education (CBE) or computer-based instruction (CBI) are very broad-based terms, which simply refer to any and all computer use in education;

€ Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) refers to software-driven curriculum;

€ Computer-managed instruction (CMI) can refer to either a data management system used by teachers or a system for tracking and evaluating student performance;

€ Computer-enriched instruction (CEI) includes computer generation of data, execution of student programs, and general enrichment activities.

Similiarly, there are four basic types of computer-assisted instruction software: drills, tutorials, games, and simulations.

1. Drills: Tune of a different drummer

Computer-assisted instruction has traditionally been thought to offer students infinitely patient opportunities for practice, practice, and more practice. This drill option gives teachers the chance to follow-up direct instruction with a variety of practice levels. Software designed to achieve this includes numerous levels and options, a variety of student response choices, and reinforcement, all of which give either sufficient repetition or sufficiently increasing levels of difficulty to achieve mastery.

Ferdi Serim, District Computer Coordinator for Princeton Regional Schools and author, compares this to a musician’s need to practice scales and rudiments. In music, this type of practice provides the structure and experience that become the basis for spontaneity and creativity. Serim suggests that the best methods for using computer-assisted instruction in an appropriate context are yet to be developed.

2. Tutorials: Your horn or mine?

As a teaching tool, the computer can occasionally eliminate the need for direct instruction. Some teachers are horrified by that thought, but most are grateful for the tutorial features incorporated into many software programs. Both teachers and students benefit from this because it facilitates using a new program in a short period of time.

When the program itself is the tutorial, software designed with evaluation options for students to proceed at different paces and levels can add animation and music to what is essentially a sequential process. Built-in reviews and easily accessible content, along with the ability to move forward and backward within the program make well-written tutorial software easy to use.

3. Games: Name that tune

Game software has inherent appeal for students, but raises the eyebrows of some teachers and parents. It offers built-in competition: Did you reach your goal faster, with more accumulated points or rewards, or both? Like drill and practice, game software reinforces both skill development and speed. Competition adds excitement, but also introduces the possibility of defeat. Games are frequently used with previously taught skills requiring quick reactions, such as math facts. But students for years have also enjoyed games requiring more thinking and decision-making, such as “Oregon Trail” and “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”

4. Simulations: is it real or is it . . . .?

Some sophisticated software places students in artificial environments with changing sets of circumstances, a reflection of real life experiences. This type of program offers the opportunity for logical thinking and careful problem-solving, along with the potential for regrouping when mistakes are made. In higher education, pilots and nurses benefit from these options during training, while younger students may use simulation software to gain experience in resolving community issues in many different ways.

Studies show that when CAI is used as a supplement to traditional, teacher-directed instruction, there can be many benefits. By using word processing programs, students write longer, use a greater variety of words and sentence structures, and gain a more accurate grasp of grammar, usage, and spelling. They tend to revise more and can show a better understanding of the writing process. They also tend to have better attitudes toward writing. Studies show that, in general, students not only learn better and faster when receiving CAI, they also retain what they have learned better and have better rates of time-on-task. This is especially true among lower-achieving students and economically disadvantaged students. CAI also offers more options for studens with handicaps.

Evaluating CAI software

Evaluation must follow implementation, whether it’s traditional curriculum, computer-assisted packages, or some combination. Susan Marks, director of the User Services Team of the Office of Global Access Technology of the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, says that because “software is a tool and not an end,” it is important to look at desired student outcomes of a curriculum, unit, or lesson beforechoosing to use computers. The focus should be on integrating the technology with the instructional program. Marks also says it is important to look at the needs and interests of the community while designing and determining the technology options for students.

Her school system is carefully evaluating the effectiveness of its total global access technology program. Here are some of the measures Marks uses:

€ curricular demands for technology use

€ teacher use of instructional strategies

€ growth in quality of student work

€ information resources available to students

€ availability of networked computers to students outside class

€ graduates’ report on relevancy of skills

€ active learning and computer use or non use.

A big question for educators is what criteria should be used in evaluating the software that drives all computer-assisted instruction.

Terrie Gray has developed extremely thorough evaluation criteria for online instructional resources, which she has posted at Ed’s Oasis web site. There are 30 criteria listed there, but she describes the first eight as the most significant, because they deal with what students can do on a web site. Although online experiences are different from educational software packages, her criteria stress interactivity, communication, student contributions, and support for a variety of student projects, all of which are important in software packages as well.

Computer instruction, no matter how sophisticated it has become, is still no substitute for a talented, dedicated teacher. But CAI now has an established role in education, and educators are learning how to use it and evaluate it to ensure that it succeeds in amplifying, enriching, and extending the benefits of effective human instruction.

Here is a list of software evaluation criteria developed by researchers:

  1. Is the material clear and inviting?

  2. Is there sufficient repetition of concepts with options for more or less repetition as needed?

  3. Is there built-in positive reinforcement for students?

  4. Is the software sufficiently interactive?

  5. Is it logical, coherent, and sequential?

  6. Is the content presented and developed with sufficient depth of understanding for the age and grade level(s)?

  7. Does the student receive sufficient feedback to revise incorrect answers?

  8. Is there room for individual differences?

  9. Does the student find the program motivating?

  10. Finally, how effective is computer-assisted instruction in addressing the curricular topic under consideration?