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Recent Research on Computer Assisted Instruction (1986)

Recent Research on Computer Assisted Instruction (1986)

©1986, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1986). Recent research on computer assisted instruction. Paper for Dr. Sid Levy, Department of Special Education, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.


Recent Research on Computer Assisted Instruction

 By Dallas Denny

For Dr. Sid Levy

Department of Special Education

George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University

Nashville, Tennessee


While it could perhaps be argued that microcomputers have yet to cause great changes in the fabric of our educational systems, there is little doubt they have caused great changes in the publishing industry. Besides the publication of innumerable books, many popular magazines and scholarly journals have devoted whole issues to microcomputers. And one of the most popular topics is the use of computers in school. Unfortunately, an astonishingly large percentage of computer-related articles in even our most prestigious journals is speculation and opinion— informed speculation and opinion, perhaps, but speculation and opinion nonetheless. Empirical reports are scarce and widely scattered, and reviews are all too rare. However, such reports and reviews do exist, and it is necessary to periodically collect and discuss them. This paper will give a brief overview with emphasis on results of recent (roughly 1982—present) reports and reviews of research of one area of computer usage in schools— Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI).

 Computer Assisted Instruction

One of the oldest— perhaps we can not yet call it traditional— ways in which computers can be used in schools is Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI). CAI has also been recently called Computer Based Instruction (Kulik, 1983, Kulik & Bangert-Drowns, 1983, Kearsley, et. al., 1983), and Computer Assisted Learning (Fisher, 1982). This is perhaps an improvement over the past, when Salisbury (1971) identified over 20 overlapping names.

There are several types of CAI; however, these distinctions are often ignored in research literature. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine what the investigator meant by CAI. It is even more difficult to compare results of various studies, since research methodology varies widely (Kulik, 1983). There have been a sufficient number of studies, however, to allow some judgement of the efficacy of CAI; Selden and Schultz (1982) found citations for more than 4500 CAI research articles.


Types of CAI

CAI can be defined as either adjunct or primary. Adjunct CAI is used to supplement a learning situation, as opposed to primary CAI, which substitutes for other modes of instruction. A second distinction refers to the mode of instruction provided by the computer. There is general consensus that six modes of CAI exist. These are: drill-and-practice, tutorial dialog, simulation and model building, management of instruction, teaching computer—related information skills, and teaching computer programming (Becker, 1982).

Efficacy of CAI

In general, well-designed, tightly controlled evaluative studies of the effectiveness of CAI are rare. However, certain trends are being consistently reported across a large body of this literature. The findings reported here regarding the effectiveness of computer assisted instruction represent the conclusions drawn by a number of different investigators who have reviewed and synthesized the CAI literature (Becker, 1982; Bright, 1983; Burns & Bozeman, 1981; Chambers & Sprecher, 1980; Forman, 1982; Judd, 1981; Kulik, 1983; Kulik & Bangert—Drowns, 1983; Kulik, Bangert, & Williams, 1982; Kulik, Kulik, & Cohen, 1980; Jamison, Suppes, & Wells, 1974; Edwards, Norton, Taylor, Weiss, & Dusseldorp, 1975; Selden & Schultz (1982); Thomas, 1979; Vinsonhaler & Bass, 1972).

Selden and Schultz (1982) noted that the literature “is clearly weighted in favor of results that show CAI gains.” They reported that achievement gains for CAI ranged from about 10 per cent to 90 per cent over traditional instructional techniques, and that CAI trainees required less time to reach a level equal to non-CAI learners. Kulik (1983), and Kulik & Bangert-Drowns (1983), reviewed a number of attempts to integrate the findings of various researchers and reached similar conclusions. In a recent meta-analysis, Kulik, et. al. (1983) reported that CAI raised scores on final examinations from the 50th to the 63rd percentile.


History of CAI

Pagliaro (1983) and Skinner (1984) trace the history of CAI to 1926, when Pressey published an article “A simple apparatus which gives tests and scores— and teaches.” Kulik and Bangert-Drowns (1983) dated the first attempt to apply scientific technology to instruction to 1954, when B.F. Skinner’s article “The science of learning and the art of teaching” was published. In the 1960s CAI was implemented on a number of types of mainframe computers; most notable were the IBM 1500 and PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) systems (Pagliaro, 1983). IBM discontinued support of the 1500 in the 1970s, but PLATO programs remain available on mainframe systems, and some have been adapted for microcomputers (Pagliaro, 1983, Watson, 1983). It was not until the advent of inexpensive microcomputers in the late 1970s, however, that CAI became available to most school systems. Becker (1983) reported that by January, 1983, a majority of schools in the United States had obtained at least one microcomputer.


Costs of CAI

What are the costs of CAI? Cost estimates for CAI are highly variable and difficult to establish with any degree of accuracy, particularly as CAI can be delivered on a variety of timesharing or microcomputer systems. There exist a number of studies which have assessed the cost effectiveness of timeshare systems, but studies providing information regarding inexpensive microcomputers and commercially available courseware are rare.

In the recent ETS study which used a minicomputer supporting 32 remote terminals, the per-pupil cost estimate for CAI was $130 for one daily 10-minute session of CAI throughout the school year. At this rate, up to three 10-minute sessions of drill-and-practice could be provided daily for each disadvantaged child in the district and remain within the district’s per-pupil Title-I allocations.

Hofstetter (1983) compared the actual costs of operating a mainframe PLATO system at the University of Delaware to estimates made by Alpert and Bitzer (1970) and Kearsley (1977). He reported the costs per student contact hour decreased steadily from 1975 to 1983, as cost of hardware decreased and the number of terminals increased. Actual cost per hour of student use at Delaware, with over 260 terminals in use, was $2.47, which was higher than the maximum predicted by Alpert and Bitzer, and lower than that predicted by Kearsley. Hofstetter noted that, using microcomputer based PLATO software, costs would be much less expensive; with courseware and maintenance, and with hardware amortized over a seven year period, cost per hour of student use would be $1.15.

Selden and Schultz (1982) found CAI costs have dropped dramatically since 1975. They suggest that with a microcomputer system costing about $2000, use of the computer for 2000 hours per year of CAI results in a cost of 25 cents per hour.


CAI and racial characteristics of users

A survey by Johns Hopkins University revealed computer usage is very different in schools which are predominantly white and those in which the pupils belong predominantly to minority groups (Becker, 1983). The use of drill-and-practice occurs much more frequently in minority schools, whereas there is more emphasis on programming in predominantly white schools.


Future of CAI

B.F. Skinner (1984) recently broadsided the American education system. He contends that most current problems could be solved if students learned more in a given unit of time with the same amount of effort. The way in which he suggests it be done is with teaching machines using programmed instructional materials geared for the special needs of each student. The technology to support Skinner’s dreams of 25 years ago has arrived, and so far as he is concerned, we have done little with it. Nonetheless, considering the positive attitudes towards CAI of students who use it and its continued popularity after 20 years of use (Kulik & Bangert-Drowrns, 1983), it is likely it is here to stay.



Low-cost microcomputers in the schools make practical widespread usage of CAI. Empirical studies of the effectiveness of CAI are rare and existing studies are plagued with problems of definition of terms. However, the preponderance of evidence suggests that CAI is effective. Nevertheless, CAI has not caused any profound changes in the American Educational System. Even the programmed learning envisioned by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s has not been systematically applied and studied.



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