Computer-Assisted Learning is an encompassing term which generally refers to 3 major uses of computers in education and training.
The first is called computer-assisted instruction and can be described as learning through computers. In CAI, instructional sequences and questions must first be preprogrammed and then students use the preprogrammed instructional material in an interactive fashion. Examples of typical CAI sequences are drill and practice, gaming, simulation, Socratic questioning, testing and tutorial instruction. In CAI emphasis is placed upon having students learn new concepts or in reinforcing previously learned concepts. Unfortunately, because it takes many hours to develop even one hour of CAI, the cost of producing CAI programs can be expensive.
The second major use of CAL is for computer-managed instruction. In this instructional mode, the computer mainly manages a student's instructional activities. This is accomplished by allocating or scheduling learning materials and physical resources for each student; providing the student with access to test questions; grading examinations or assignments; providing diagnoses of learning performance based upon test performance scores; prescribing different instructional activities according to the student's performance and/or rate of progress; and record keeping. CAI sequences can be included in CMI-based courses, but this has usually not been done due to the high cost associated with producing or acquiring CAI materials. Students using CMI generally only need occasional access to a computer since it is possible that most of the learning materials are available offline. The instructional sequences in CMI are accomplished through a variety of traditional noncomputer techniques such as regular classroom instruction, self-instructional materials, laboratory work, seminars and workshops. Consequently more CMI students are accommodated per computer than is the case with CAI where constant access to a computer is required by each user. Due to the fact that provision of instruction via CMI is often much less expensive than through CAI, CMI is often the instructional model of choice when funds are scarce.
Using Computers As Tools
The third major use of CAL is one in which students write their own computer programs to solve a variety of problems. This approach is described as learning with computers or, more simply, using computers as tools. Students explore solutions to an assortment of problems by writing programs using programming languages such as APL, BASIC, C, LOGO and PASCAL. In addition, a variety of sophisticated programming tools have become available. This permits students to access and/or create graphics, audio and video materials as part of their programming repertoire. Included in this set of tools are database, spreadsheet, telecommunications and word processing application packages.
Until 1977, when fully assembled, low-cost microcomputers became generally available, most CAL activities were centered either in post-secondary institutions or in business and industry. The early uses of CAL in Canada were non-CAI in nature. As programming and problem-solving applications evolved and developed, many universities, colleges and technical institutes established academic computing centres and teaching departments of computing science. As an example, the University of Waterloo is a world leader in the design of student compilers and interpreters. Waterloo's compilers and interpreters run on many varieties of computers and are used daily by students at universities and colleges worldwide.
In 1968, under the direction of Dr. Steve Hunka, the first major CAI project in Canada was initiated in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. In this project, an experimental computer-based instructional system, the IBM 1500 system, was installed; IBM only produced 20 such systems. The IBM 1500 was used at the U of A for research and development for 12 years and was replaced by a Control Data Corporation PLATO System. Other major CAI projects at that time were at the U of Calgary, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and the National Research Council.
There have been some successful attempts at producing CAI materials to teach "full-length" courses. These materials are usually produced by development teams. Such development teams might include subject-matter experts, instructors, audio, graphic and video specialists, programmers, computer analysts and technical writers. The time required to develop CAI materials depends a great deal upon the authoring system, the expertise of the development team and the complexity of the instructional application. Examples of some current authoring systems are Asymetrix ToolBook, Icon, Macromedia Authorware, Macromedia Director, Podium, Quest Multimedia and TenCORE Producer. Even with access to sophisticated authoring systems and production tools, it is common to hear of estimates of 100-300 hours of development time being required for each student hour of CAI.
Most CAI programs tend to reinforce previously learned skills by providing preprogrammed instructional materials, asking questions, analysing the student's responses, providing alternative instructional sequences which depend upon the student's prior performance and presenting summaries of the student's performance. This is evident in the available commercial mathematics, spelling, and language-arts drill and practice programs. As the types of CAI programs become more sophisticated (ie, tutorial rather than drill and practice), students are presented with new material based on their performance both within the lessons and in end-of-unit quizzes. Some CAI courses are quite long (requiring an average of 100 hours or more to complete), use a variety of media and are primarily intended to be used without the presence of an instructor. Other CAI courses may last only 10 or 15 minutes and are meant to supplement classroom work.
Since 1977, primarily due to the introduction of microcomputers, uses of CAL have spread rapidly throughout the Canadian educational system. Most provincial departments (or ministries) of education have initiated local projects to help cope with the rapid increase of computer use in the public school sector. For example, in 1983 the Ministries of Education in Ontario and Québec each announced their own unique microcomputer hardware specifications for their schools. Both ministries provided development funds for production of materials for these microcomputers. In response to Ontario's microcomputer specifications, the Canadian Education Microprocessor Corporation developed and manufactured a microcomputer called the ICON. The Ontario Ministry of Education provided funds, on a sliding scale, to its school boards to purchase microcomputer equipment that met the Ministry's approved specifications. In some cases, this funding assistance amounted to 95% of the cost of microcomputer systems.
In the public education sector, CAL development activity is more evident in post-secondary institutions than in the elementary and secondary schools. One reason for this is that courses in post-secondary institutions are taught in shorter elapsed periods of time. As well, most elementary and secondary schools continue to operate a traditional, lock-step grade system in which there is very little incentive to use new instructional techniques to decrease learning time for individual students. Because of this and, also, due to the high cost of acquiring CAI curriculum materials, elementary and secondary schools emphasize learning with computers rather than learning through computers. So far, CAI has had little effect on classroom structures and practices of elementary and secondary schools. As a result commercial courseware firms have been reticent to produce full-length courses for the schools. However, some provincial departments of education have attempted to facilitate production and availability of full-length CAI courses. One example is a western Canada consortium that was formed to produce 7 high school mathematics courses. The consortium was funded by the departments of education from the 4 western Canadian provinces (BC, Alta, Sask and Man), the University of Alberta (Canadian Centre for the Development of Instructional Computing), Nelson Publishing Ltd and Industry Science and Technology Canada. The courses are being commercially distributed on CD-ROM and are now available at a nominal fee.
Some large-scale CAI and CMI projects have been conducted by industry and the military - especially the military. The use of CAL in these sectors has been primarily oriented toward training applications. In the military sector, personnel are required to operate increasingly sophisticated, advanced new technologies. Thus, these CAL projects have tended to use a variety of high-level authoring systems, leading-edge multimedia equipment and advanced instructional techniques to provide realistic training environments. Since 1990, spurred, in part, by the CAL activity in the military sector, a small but rapidly growing courseware development industry is beginning to emerge in Canada.