Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 40 / SEPTEMBER 1983 / PAGE 38

Guest Commentary

Robert Nielsen

King Solomon, writing about the futility of various pursuits in life as ends in themselves, did not neglect learning. He wrote: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh" (Eccl. 12:12b). Children today must feel similarly: a bachelor's degree comes at the end of seventeen years of education for most people. Consequently, educators are always seeking more effective ways to accomplish their task of imparting knowledge and training minds. One useful means to this end is the computer.

Responsive Pacing
In its pure form, programmed instruction involves the presentation of new material step-by-step. Additionally, learners work individually at their own speed, and there are frequent examinations followed by immediate correction. Usually the learner is given a short piece of material followed by a fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, or other question for which the answer can be mechanically graded.
    Traditional books and teaching machines, however, do not accommodate differences between fast and slow learners. Although the students work individually, at their own pace, all students must go through the same syllabus in exactly the same way. There is little flexibility for the weak student who needs extra drill and practice or for the advanced student who needs greater challenges.
    Fortunately, the computer is able to handle what is called a branching program. In such a program there is no one correct way for the learner to move through the material. Instead, material is presented based on the learner's past performance. Thus, if there is evidence that a student already knows some of the material, then future reference to that topic may never be presented. The student who does slightly substandard work can be given extra drill and practice, while the one who does very poorly can be given a different, expanded explanation. In each case the computer can offer an individualized learning program to the student.
    Whatever the technology - books, teaching machine, or computer - programmed instruction is limited to subjects which can be quantified. Therefore, such subjects as mathematics, chemistry, and physics can easily be adapted to programmed learning. Much more difficult to adapt are fields such as art appreciation, philosophy, and literature, since these subjects often require treatment which cannot be mechanically scored. The question "Why is Moby Dick a great piece of literature?" requires a type of answer radically different from the physics problem concerning the acceleration of an object dropped near the surface of the earth.
    Not too long ago (only a few years) it might have been easily assumed that computer-assisted instruction would continue closely allied with the application of behavioral science to learning theory. This has not been the case, in part because not all educators are behaviorists. Instead, instructors use the computer when it can present material in a way which is consistent with their educational philosophy.

Firing Ranges, Foreign Languages
This wider use of the computer encourages new speculation as to how CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction) works. The behaviorist sees the computer as a giver of rewards to the successful learner, thus increasing learning. However, behaviorism is only one branch of education and one which is limited, by definition, since it is concerned only with behaviors and nothing else. One explanation for the effectiveness of CAI comes from two disparate realms of education: the firing range and the foreign language classroom.

The largest educational organization in the United States is the military. Much time, energy, and money is spent training personnel. Consequently, the military is always looking for faster, cheaper ways to teach. One improvement that it discovered was in teaching marksmanship.

The computer is
silent, which allows
the student time
to think and,
consequently, learn.

    The old method of teaching soldiers to shoot accurately was to let the soldiers take shots at a target. Then the sergeant would come over and tell the recruit how well he did. Informed of his results, the soldier would have another try.
    As an experiment, the army tried placing targets which fell over when accurately hit, but which did nothing when missed. There was no instructor to tell the soldiers how they did: they could see for themselves.
    The result was that soldiers learned faster and used fewer bullets. Interestingly enough, when people are told that they have done a job poorly, they say to themselves, "I'm no good." That is, they take an evaluation of their performance and apply it to themselves. While it is very easy intellectually to separate performance from person, emotionally it is very difficult. Furthermore, people who think they have been (or actually have been) judged negatively as a person tend to do worse in performance. In short, a person who tells you that you did a job poorly is not helping you to do the job better next time.
    The second example comes from the foreign language class. Here, just as in the army, much time and effort is spent to teach students. Consequently, there is a proliferation of methods to teach foreign languages, each method trying to do the job better than previous ones. One surprising way that works well involves a mostly silent teacher.
    The teacher rarely speaks even when students make errors. For example, when a student makes a pronunciation error, most traditional teachers would say something like "No, the correct pronunciation is ...." The silent teacher, however, would point to the part of the word where the error occurred. Students would then guess new pronunciations until hitting on the correct one (usually rather quickly). The correct answer is met with a slight nod of the head. In spite of the apparent paradox or apparent inefficiencies of a silent language teacher, students not only learn but seem to thrive under this system.
    The point of the above examples is that the computer provides similar feedback to student responses. Because it is a machine rather than a person which gives the feedback to students, their egos are not as threatened. Additionally, the computer is usually silent, which allows the students time to think and, consequently, learn.

Inexpensive, Safe, Holistic
Another, well-established application of CAI is in the field of simulations. Simulations are used in education to provide a substitute for the real thing. Sometimes a substitute is preferred because it is less costly - learning to fly an aircraft, for example. A mock-up of an airplane cockpit connected to a high-speed computer can give every effect of flying an airplane, yet never leave the ground.
    Moreover, simulations can provide learners with experience that would be too dangerous in real life. For example, pilots need to practice emergency situations, such as landing with one inoperative engine. Done with actual aircraft, this procedure may result in disaster. Simulated with the help of a computer, such an "emergency" gives pilots invaluable experience for a genuine emergency, should one ever happen.
    Finally, simulations provide a holistic view - an appreciation for how everything works together. It has been said that scholars today know more and more about less and less. The knowledge that a simulation provides is just the opposite: a view of the whole instead of a focus on the details. The world of the classroom is one where details can be examined at length and at leisure. Outside the classroom, things are important not only for what they are in themselves, but for how they fit in with everything else that is happening. A simulation can provide this insight.
    There are clearly several significant uses for computers in education. We've only described pacing, efficiency, and simulation. There are also strong arguments for using computers in educational management (grading, attendance) and in games which teach. The pessimism expressed by King Solomon may not apply to the learners and teachers of the future.