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The Potential of Microcomputers as Teaching Machines for Individuals with Severe Handicaps (1987)

The Potential of Microcomputers as Teaching Machines for Individuals with Severe Handicaps (1987)

©1987 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1987). The potential of microcomputers as teaching machines for individuals with severe handicaps. Paper for Department of Special Education, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.

This paper was submitted for my general qualifying examinations.



The Potential of Microcomputers as Teaching Machines for Individuals with Severe Handicaps

By Dallas Denny
For General Qualifying Examinations
Department of Special Education
George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University

August 24, 1987



Although it is hardly possible to predict the exact manner in which microcomputers will change the lives of persons with severe handicaps, it is possible, by considering the unique abilities of these machines, to speculate about ways in which they could be of major benefit. Four characteristics make microcomputers especially suitable tools for working with persons with severe handicaps: programmability, the ability to respond to environmental events, the ability to provide reinforcing consequences for behavior, and the ability to keep detailed and precise records. These characteristics also make computers the ideal teaching machines envisioned by B.F. Skinner in his influential 1954 paper in Harvard Educational Review. In their traditional form as desktop boxes, teaching machines would be unworkable for most students with severe or multiple handicaps; however in many different guises, teaching machines would be functionally the same. Examination of several existing applications illustrates the use of microcomputers as teaching machines with persons with severe and multiple handicaps.


The potential for microcomputers as tools for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of human disabilities is as yet mostly unexplored. The coming decades will reveal new and unexpected ways in which computers can be used in schools, homes, and institutions to improve the quality of life of individuals with severe single and multiple handicaps. Although it is hardly possible to predict the exact manner in which these machines will change the lives of persons with handicaps, it is possible, by considering the unique abilities of microcomputers, to speculate about ways in which they could be of major benefit.

What characteristics will make microcomputers useful for persons with severe disabilities? First, they are programmable. Unlike the mechanical devices which came into widespread use as teaching machines in the late 1950s, after the publication in 1954 of Skinner’s seminal article, “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching,” computers are capable of responding in complex, variable, and unpredictable ways. Furthermore, the response set of a computer is not hard-wired. The pattern of responses is capable of moment-to-moment modification in reaction to input from a keyboard or an adaptive switch, or from instructions present in the program itself. Second, microcomputers have the ability to determine when an environmental event has occurred. Almost any body movement (read behavior) imaginable can be reliably detected via adaptive switches and communicated to the computer. Third, microcomputers are capable of providing a variety of consequences for behavior, with only milliseconds of delay. They can reinforce or punish behavior on any schedule or combination of schedules imaginable. Fourth, microcomputers are capable of keeping detailed and precise records. They can capture, time, and store events with great precision. These events can be later displayed in almost any manner desired.

These unique abilities make microcomputers the ideal teaching machines Skinner (1954) envisioned. And it is these abilities that will cause microcomputers to serve as teaching machines for persons with severe handicaps.

The word functional is an important one. When most educators picture teaching machines, they visualize a box which sits at a desk. A student sits in front of the box, responding to prompts on a video screen by typing at a keyboard, or perhaps by touching the screen. Students with mild or moderate disabilities may be able to use this type of apparatus with little modification, but it is doubtful that microcomputers, when used as teaching machines with persons with severe and profound disabilities, will fit this image. To the eye, they may look like something else entirely. Only a functional analysis will reveal whether an apparatus is a teaching machine. That is, only inspection of the relationship between the stimuli provided by the computer, the response of the student and the contingencies provided by the machine for that response will reveal whether machine-mediated learning is occurring.

Computers have already been used as teaching machines for persons with severe handicaps. For example, Brinker and Lewis (1981, 1982) used Apple II microcomputers to train motor skills. The computer provided immediate consequences for arm and leg movements of infants with handicaps. Strings tied to the limbs of the infants were attached to microswitches; movements caused one of a variety of computer-mediated reinforcing events to occur. In order to control for habituation, the microcomputer monitored response rates and changed contingencies when responses fell below the baseline rate. Brinker and Lewis found infants were able to discriminate the body movements required to produce the reinforcement. That is, movements occurred above baseline levels. The importance of these findings becomes apparent when considering Brinker and Lewis’ (1982) and BrInker’s (1983) speculation that interactions between infants with handicaps and their caretakers were abnormal because the handicapped infant did not give as much feedback as did normally developing infants, and that the computer could be used to supplement infant-caretaker interactions.

Tracy, in an unpublished study, used a microcomputer in an attempt to determine the level of voluntary movement and intellectual functioning of a young boy with profound cerebral palsy. The intellectual functioning of the child was unknown because he was untestable by traditional methods, but he was presumed to be profoundly mentally retarded and was so classified according to institutional records. Tracy was able to demonstrate that this individual, who was thought to have no voluntary movement whatsoever, kept an adaptive switch pressed over baseline levels when the switch controlled a toy train and a record player. Tracy planned, by providing discrimination learning tasks, to assess the intelligence of this individual. Unfortunately, illness of the child prevented further assessment.

Neither Brinker & Lewis’ (1981, 1982) nor Tracy’s (unpublished) apparatus bore even a superficial resemblance to the traditional image of a teaching machine. Yet in both cases the apparatus fit the functional definition of a teaching machine. As computers become more widespread in our society, and as new applications for persons with handicaps continue to evolve, it will become increasingly important to be able to make this kind of analysis.



Brinker, R.P. (1983). Learning to control events and express preferences with the help of microcomputers. Sixth Annual Symposium, The Instructional Media Production Project for Severely Handicapped Students, Nashville, TN, March 27-29.

Brinker, R.P.; & Lewis, M. (1981). Patterns of learning by handicapped infants. Paper presented at the Biennial Convention of the Society for Research in Child Development, Boston.

Brinker, R.P.; & Lewis, N. (1982). Making the world work with microcomputers: A learning prosthesis for handicapped infants. Exceptional Children, 48(2), 163-170.

Skinner, B.F. (1954). The science of learning and the art of teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 24(2), 86-97.

Skinner, B.F. (1984). The shame of American education. American Psychologist, 3(9), 947-954.