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Computer-Assisted Instruction and the Handicapped Child (1984)

Computer-Assisted Instruction and the Handicapped Child (1984)

©1984, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1984). Computer-assisted instruction and the handicapped child. Paper for Dr. Floyd Dennis, Department of Special Education, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.





Computer-Assisted Instruction and the Handicapped Child

By Dallas Denny

 For Dr. Floyd Dennis

Special Education Administration 3040

April 30, 1984


In 1954, B.F. Skinner published a paper in Harvard Educational Review in which he proposed the use of mechanical educational devices which operated on principles of operant conditioning (Pagliaro, 1983). He called these devices teaching machines, and the instructional method he named programmed Instruction. In the 1950s a number of Programmed Instruction teaching machines were placed in public schools. During the 1960s, computers, which were then large and quite expensive, were used to the same ends, most notably by Control Data Corporation with a system called PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations; Pagliaro, 1983).

Programmed instruction, when used with computers, has come to be called Computer-Assisted Instruction, or CAI for short. There have been many studies of the efficacy of CAI, including a number of meta-analyses (or analyses of analyses; cf Kulik, 1983) While there have been studies which found CAI to be no more effective than traditional teaching, few have found CAI to be less effective, and most have found CAI to be more effective than traditional instruction. Typical findings are that CAI brings students to criterion levels faster than traditional instruction, and that a combination of traditional instruction and CAI is more effective than either alone (Bright, in press; Selden and Schultz, 1982)


CAI and the Handicapped

One of the most surprising findings about CAI is that it is not the brightest students who benefit most from it; rather, the below-average pupil stands to benefit more (Chambers and Sprecher, 1980). While the reasons for this remain unclear, what is important is that low-cost microcomputers with CAI courseware can augment traditional teaching methods and help to bring the performance of slow learners up.

The mildly retarded student or the child with mild learning disabilities can benefit from traditional CAI courseware. For these students, the computer provides additional instruction. For example, in a recent study (Goin, 1984) learning disabled students showed marked improvement in addition and subtraction after practice with popular arcade-type courseware.

For students who are severely or profoundly retarded, microcomputers can be used for computer-assisted instruction. However, Hofmeister and Thorkildsen (1984) point out that new and improved instructional design procedures may be needed for this population; they note that CAI typically uses algorhythmic procedures which incorporate simple branching and error checking, and call for increased use of “heuristic procedures.” Heuristic procedures are similar to algorithmic procedures, but have more sophisticated decision-making (read artificial intelligence) capabilities. In general, such capabilities are not available on microcomputer courseware, and courseware for severely and profoundly retarded students is scarce and often inappropriate. However, that does not mean that courseware is nonexistent; the microcomputer can play an important role in the education of the severely and profoundly retarded.

An example of courseware geared toward severely retarded is the series of programs SAY AS I DO which were developed by the Media production Project of Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. SAY AS I DO trains words to sight recognition, and two arcade-style games provide practice in discriminating the individual letters of the words and the target words from others.


CAI and the Special Education Administrator

There are, of course, considerations about hardware, and software, and compatability of the two. But of major concern in this paper is the actual process by which poorly performing students will have access to the computer.

The sad fact is there are not enough computers in schools to go around. Schimizzi (1983) , in a report of a nationwide survey of schools, found that only one-third of the 400 schools surveyed had even a single microcomputer. And of these, only 14% indicated that the microcomputer would be used for purposes of special education.

Under Public Law 94-142, mentally retarded students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. Considering the growing number of and importance of computers in the classroom, it is likely that in the near future litigation and due process proceedings will mandate use of or equal access to microcomputers with retarded students. Some day computers may be present and in common use in the special education classroom. Practically speaking, and for the present, however, the access of the special education student to microcomputers may be in part dependent upon the degree of segregation of the school system.

If a school district has segregated special education schools, they will most likely (if Schimizzi’s findings are typical) be low on the priority to receive microcomputers. In the case of segregated special education schools, the actual placement of the child will be determined by considering the functioning level and deciding where the child fits into a “cascade” or continuum of services (Deno, 1970; Willenberg, 1970) . The “slow learner”— i.e. the mild and moderately mentally retarded or learning disabled student— is most likely to be mainstreamed, and therefore in at least the same geographical location as a microcomputer.

There have been problems which arise between principals and special education administrators in the mainstream setting; this is due to differing perceptions of responsibilities of principals and special education administrators (Rouman, 1980). The teacher, who has responsibilities to both the principal and special education administrator, if expected to schedule use of the computer, could conceivably be placed in a potentially conflicting situation. The special education supervisor functions as a program advocate, compliance monitor, program planner, program implementer, program operator, consultant, and liaison (Burrelo and Sage, 1979, and others— synthesized in Mayer, 1982). Probably, the administrator should take responsibility for scheduling use of microcomputers. The computer will likely be unused during part of the day (Schimizzi, 1983), and it may be necessary for these “off-times” to be utilized in order to ensure access to the microcomputer.

In segregated settings, ingenuity and creativity will be needed in order to gain access to a microcomputer. Fortunately, however, some brands of microcomputers are so inexpensive that they can be obtained if even limited funds become available for their purchase. For the present, computers in segregated settings will remain rare. As perhaps more school systems shift to noncategorical models like the ones in place in California and Massachusetts (Mayer, 1982) and Vermont (Fox, 1974) , or programs rather than children are categorized, the viewpoint that “shared responsibility for children … is related to … the determination of the most effective, appropriate individually based learning environments for particular children” (Mayer, 1982), new technology will become more available to handicapped learners.


Reference Note


Goin, L. Applications of computer technology to handicapped populations: A panel discussion. Paper presented at Tennessee Association for Educational Data Systems, April 28, 1984.




Bright, G.W. Explaining the efficiency of computer assisted instruction. In press, AEDS Journal.

Burrelo, L.C.; & Sage, D.D. Leadership and change in special education. Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Chambers, J.A.; & J.W. Sprecher. (1980). Computer assisted instruction: Current trends and critical issues. In: Communications of the ACM. Association for Computing Machinery.

Deno, E.N. Special education as developmental capital. 1970. Exceptional Children, 37:229-237.

Fox, W.L., Egner, A.N.; Paoulucci, P.E.; Perelman, P.F.; & McKenzie, H.S. (1974). An introduction to a regular classroom approach to special education. In: Instructional alternatives for exceptional children, Ed. E.N. Deno, pp. 22-46. Reston, VA: The Council of Exceptional Children.

Hofmeister, A.M.; & Thorkildsen, R. (1984). Microcomputers in special education: Implications for instructional design. 1984. Exceptional Education Quarterly, 4(4): 1-8.

Kulik, J. Synthesis of research on electronic learning. 1983. Educational Leadership, 40(8): 13-15.

Mayer, CL. (1982). Educational Administration and Special Education. Allyn & Bacon: NY.

Pagliaro, L.A. (1983). The history and development of CAI: 1926-1981, An Overview. 1983. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 29(1): 75-84.

Rouman, J. A study of principals’ perceptions of their roles between regular and special education in school buildings where learning handicapped children are mainstreamed. Doctoral dissertation, University of Northern Colorado.

Schimizzi, N. A comparison of the results of two national surveys. 1983-84. Action in Teacher Education, 5(4): 59-61.

Selden, P.H.; and Schultz, N.L. (1982). What the research says about CAI’s potential. Training/HRD, 19(11): 61-64.

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

Willenberg, E.P. (1970). Administrative structures for special education. In: The process of special education administration, Eds. C.W. Mesgeir and J.D. King. Scranton, PA: International Textbook Co.