If you think the instructional computer programs we used to refer to as “integrated learning systems” are big, rigid, and focused only on repetitive practice ‹ what critics call “drill and kill” ‹ take another look. Software companies are selling automated curriculum services in smaller, less-costly packages, adding more sophisticated instructional design, and giving teachers more control. Some are even integrating the internet into their systems.

For all their development, integrated learning systems‹or “interactive curriculum systems (ICS),” as they now might more accurately be called ‹still do what they were designed to do back in the late 1970s. By integrating many hours of instructional material, assessment tools, and a “manager,” they:

  1. Assess a student’s weaknesses and strengths.

  2. Create individualized instruction by selecting from their integrated lessons and exercises the material the system deems best suited to a student’s needs.

  3. Manage instruction so the student is led through the material in small, sequential steps. When a step is mastered, the “manager” introduces the next step. If a step isn’t mastered, the manager reteaches the material.

  4. Create detailed student performance reports, allowing a teacher to spot problems easily and intervene.

“The real value of the program is its ability to individualize instruction,” says Anne Vietmeyer, technology coordinator at the Gunston Elementary School in Lorton, Va.. Gunston has been using Computer Curriculum Corp.’s “SuccessMaker” system since 1994.

“Each student can work at their own level. With a very large range of ability levels in a single classroom, the program becomes a tool to meet the many individual needs in the classroom,” says Vietmeyer.

Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC) and Jostens Learning Corp.(JLC) are the largest providers of interactive curriculum systems. When sales of their regular courseware are added to their ICS revenues, they rank as the country’s largest creators of K-12 educational software. Each holds about 18 percent of the K-12 market, with sales exceeding $100 million a year, according to sources in the industry.

The other K-12 ICS providers are TRO Learning, Inc., which in the school market focuses on grades 7-12, SkillsBank Corp.(grades 3-12), American Education Corp.(grades 1-12), and New Century Education Corp. (K-10).

From the beginning, automated curriculum services were controversial.

Critics complained their drill-and-practice instructional design was ill-suited to modern education with its emphasis on learning through experience and creativity and on students’ abilities to work cooperatively, synthesize, and communicate.

Critics also complained the systems were inflexible. The computer pretty well determined the instructional program. If it didn’t teach to the standards the school was accountable for, tough. If the teacher wanted to integrate software from another company into a lesson, or even just modify a lesson, there was little choice. And if the system didn’t suit a child’s learning style, too bad.

Plus, the systems were big and expensive. Their market was largely limited to Title 1 schools that could use federal money to buy them and that needed their reports to meet Washington’s hunger for paperwork.

“Clients wanted the ‘manager’ to be more open and flexible,” said JLC President Terry Crane. “They wanted assessment to be aligned with the assessment they are being held accountable for. Curriculum needed to be more tutorial and less drill and practice. They wanted more problem solving and more writing activities. And they wanted systems to be less costly. That’s the way all of our new products are being developed.”

Jostens is not alone. All ICS companies are responding. One of the most important developments has been the increase in flexibility. ICS managers now give teachers greater control, and most allow users to include third-party software in their lessons. American Education’s “A+dvanced Learning System” permits teachers to rewrite lessons completely, even to the extent of editing video and sound.

Another big improvement is the addition of instructional designs that go far beyond drill and practice. All ICS companies have added sound, graphics, and video for aural and visual learners. For K-4, for instance, CCC has just launched “Math Corner,” which includes many of the popular “manipulatives”‹at least graphical renderings of them‹that kids can move around on the screen.

To help students learn by doing, ICS companies have introduced problem-solving exercises and activities such as writing exercises, science simulations, and the creation of multimedia reports. To support these activities, they have added tools, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, graphing tool, and project planner.

For example, American Education’s “MediaWeaver” and CCC’s new “Reading Adventures Primary,” which teach reading and process writing, include a word processor. In May, TRO will launch “Mathematics Problem Solving,” the first of a series of releases that will add problem-solving throughout its curriculum.

In a typical TRO exercise, students prepare greenhouse lilies for a spring sale by managing temperature and moisture.

“The student uses an array of on-screen tools‹a flow chart, a graphing engine, a calendar, thermostat, and temperature charts,” says John Super, TRO’s head of marketing.

Ann Henson, Jostens Learning’s vice president for sales operations, says, “We not only want to teach content. We also want students to use tools to solve problems and to communicate. That’s what they’ll be doing in the real world.”

Another development in instructional design is the inclusion of theme-based instruction. JLC’s courseware includes thematic units. Moreover, Jostens breaks lessons into parts, so teachers can create themes from pieces of different lessons.

“Our system breaks the curriculum down to activity levels,” says Henson. “A lesson on fractions may include 10 activities. The teacher can reorder the sequence of activities. She can also delete and add activities. And if she finds a cool third-party ‘edutainment’ package that helps kids add fractions, she can insert it wherever she wants.”

In February the company launched “Vital Tools,” which can search all the instructional resources available to a teacher to find material for use in constructing units.

“A teacher who wants to build a unique thematic unit‹on money, say‹will want to be able to read about money, do math about money, and study the history of money. We have given teachers the ability to pull apart Jostens curriculum and use it in ways we haven’t thought of. But it could take a lot of time to construct a thematic unit. Vital Tools takes care of searching for you,” says Henson.

Introduction of new instructional designs creates a need for new assessment techniques. But computers do poorly at grading many recently added learning strategies, such as writing exercises and the use of manipulatives.

CCC and American Education are among the first ICS providers that have begun to address the issue. For each student, they create a “portfolio,” which is a folder where work done on the computer is stored for review and grading by the teacher.

Another area of development is in the use of the internet. TRO is delivering lessons of its “PLATO” ICS over the net, with more than 1,000 hours of instruction available, the company says. Jostens Learning is pilot testing internet delivery of its lessons.

American Education, CCC, and Jostens all have products that work with their interactive curriculum systems to bring internet web sites into their lessons. Earlier this year, SkillsBank launched a module that teaches internet skills and that can take students to a SkillsBank web site to practice.

While ICS companies have been adding to their systems, they’ve also been breaking them up and selling pieces at lower prices. A complete version of CCC’s SuccessMaker K-8 costs approximately $2,000 for every computer licensed to use it. A school that wants to use SuccessMaker on 25 networked computers will pay something around $50,000. The price rises to hundreds of thousands of dollars when SuccessMaker is installed on a district network serving several schools. And there are ongoing licensing and maintenance fees.

TRO Learning has a $300,000 contract to install its “PLATO” ICS throughout Illinois’ U-46 school district.

To bring prices down, CCC in 1997 introduced “ClassPacks”‹one subject for one grade (for example, a course in grade-three reading, complete with assessment and management tools).

Jostens also has introduced modules, offering its flagship ICS, “Tomorrow’s Promise,” by grade and subject. A new stand-alone version of Tomorrow’s Promise (grade one spelling) costs $99.95 for use on one computer. Language arts for one grade costs $279.95. Algebra for grades 7-12 costs $1,049.95.

SkillsBank also sells modules, although its systems never were as comprehensive, or as expensive, as the others. Rather than offering their comprehensive curriculum, SkillsBank sees itself as a supplement that teachers can use to teach basic skill. So SkillsBank’s system includes fewer hours of instruction.

A full, networked SkillsBank installation covering grades 9- 12 runs $6,000-$7,000. Stand-alone modules that include assessment and management tools cost as little as $149.

TRO and American Education systems traditionally have been sold in modules, and New Century President Dennis Tarzian says his company will follow soon.