This article chiefly discusses computerized instruction in schools.

How computerized instruction works

To use a computer for instruction—or for any other purpose—a user needs hardware and software. The physical equipment that makes up a computer system is called hardware. Computer software, also called a program, tells the hardware what to do and how to do it. Many instructional programs are recorded on a type of disc called a CD-ROM (Compact Disc Read-Only Memory), which can store large amounts of data. Multimedia programs combine text, images, animation, and sound. Multimedia CD-ROM's are a popular learning tool. Common features enable users to click the mouse on a word to see a definition or hear a pronunciation or view a related illustration or video clip.

Approaches to computerized instruction differ in the amount of instruction provided by the computer. In some cases, a teacher provides most of the instruction and asks students to operate a program to supplement the lesson. For example, a history teacher might ask students to use a program to learn about political campaigns before a class presentation on elections. In other cases, the computer provides most of the instruction. Schoolchildren can operate this type of program independently without a teacher. For example, students in remote or isolated communities can take advantage of such a program when a teacher is not available.

Types of programs

Educational programs are divided into groups according to the teaching methods they use. Different types of programs include drill-and-practice programs, tutorials, instructional games, simulations, and resource programs. Some of the programs combine teaching methods.

Drill-and-practice programs imitate flashcards. Students often use drill-and-practice programs to master material learned from a teacher or another source. Examples of drill-and-practice programs include multiplication drills and vocabulary practice programs.

Tutorials give a learner a small amount of information and then ask a question about the material. If the student answers correctly, the program presents new material and questions. If the student gives a wrong answer, the program explains the error. Students can use tutorials in all subject areas.

Instructional games enable students to win a computer game by using information that they have learned. Many instructional games use printed materials to supply the content that players must learn to win. Students often play instructional computer games in social studies classes. In one popular series of games, students look up answers to geography or history questions to chase a criminal around the world or through time.

Simulations are computer representations of realistic situations. Students make choices and watch how their choices affect outcomes. In one popular simulation, players design their own cities. Students decide how to provide public services, such as transportation and utilities. They determine how to use land and how much tax to charge residents. These decisions affect factors that influence the desirability of the city, including the cost of houses, the crime rate, and the amount of pollution.

Software companies often design simulations for mathematics, science, and social studies classes. Some schools have replaced science laboratories with simulations that enable students to perform experiments. For example, a biology class might learn anatomy from a simulated dissection of a frog instead of cutting up a real dead animal.

Resource programs give a learner access to databases (collections of useful information). Resource programs are a powerful tool for doing research. People can search (extract information from) databases in ways that meet their individual needs. For example, users can specify a subject or an author's name. One example of a resource program is an encyclopedia on CD-ROM, such as The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia.

Databases may be local or remote. Local databases are available only to one computer or to a local area network of computers that are connected to one another and share software. Remote databases, also known as online databases or online resources, are stored on a computer at a different location. Computer operators gain access to remote databases using a modem or other device that enables computers to communicate with each other over a network. After users search online databases, they often electronically copy information, or download it, to their own computer to examine later.

One of the most powerful and popular online resources is the Internet. The Internet is a vast computer network over which governments, universities, businesses, and individuals exchange information. Although the Internet contains a wealth of data, images, and sounds, finding specific information can be difficult. Because no overall authority checks the accuracy of information, users must evaluate Internet sources carefully.

Development of computerized instruction

Computerized instruction is based on a method of teaching called programmed instruction. Programmed instruction presents a sequence of material in small units that gradually increase in difficulty. Before computers were used for instruction, most programmed learning consisted of paper-and-pencil workbooks or tutorials. Students responded to questions and then were directed to different places in the tutorial, based on their answers. The students had to learn the material in one unit before they could go on to the next. Many students found tutorials awkward to use.

Early teaching machines. During the 1920's, researchers developed teaching machines that could deliver programmed instruction. The first teaching machine was a mechanical testing device that asked multiple-choice questions, one at a time. The machine did not present a new question until the student pressed the correct lever.

By the early 1960's, teaching machines became more complex. The machines presented information on a small screen and used sound or light to indicate a correct response.

One of the first widespread uses of computerized instruction was PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), a project developed by the University of Illinois. PLATO was the first instruction system that combined graphics with a touch-sensitive screen. By the early 1970's, many students were using PLATO instructional materials on large computers called mainframes.

The personal computer. Technological advances helped to produce smaller, faster, less expensive computers. By the late 1970's, electronics companies introduced personal computers. Unlike mainframes, personal computers were inexpensive enough for many individuals, families, and schools to purchase them. More students had access to computers, and they welcomed the novelty of computerized instruction. But most of the programs available at this time were poorly designed. Many were drill-and-practice programs that required lots of memorization and used the computer screen as if it were a piece of electronic paper.

In the 1980's, new computer technology helped to revolutionize software. Computer manufacturers developed faster computers with more memory and improved color screens. Computer programmers added more colors, attractive graphics, and lively animation. CD-ROM drives made it possible for programs to easily provide audio and video information. By the late 1980's, a technology called graphical user interface made most instructional programs easier to use. This technology enables users to give the computer instructions by selecting a picture called an icon rather than by typing commands.

Trends in computerized instruction. The importance of computers continues to increase in schools and throughout society. Computerized instruction can help students learn and also help them acquire computer literacy. Many experts feel that skill and confidence in using computers are some of the most essential lessons that education can provide. Because these skills are so important, equal access to computers has become a topic of public debate. Experts feel that society must find ways to make computers and other expensive technologies available to schools of all income levels.

The technology of computerized instruction continues to advance. Software engineers are working with artificial intelligence to design programs that—like good teachers—ask interesting questions and respond to creative answers. Artificial intelligence enables a computer to process information in a manner similar to the way a person thinks. In addition, some publishers have begun offering electronic books, also called e-books, that present textbook information through computers.

As computerized instruction becomes more widespread in schools, many educators expect the role of a teacher to change. In a classroom where computers are used extensively, the teacher may no longer be the main source of information. Instead, the teacher may act as a facilitator, helping students locate, interpret, and share information.

• Ward Mitchell Cates, Ed.D., Associate Professor, Lehigh University.

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