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Computer-Assisted Instruction for the Special Education Teacher (1985)

Computer-Assisted Instruction for the Special Education Teacher (1985)

 ©1985, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1985). Computer-assisted instruction for the special education teacher: What it is, its effectiveness with handicapped learners, and some suggestions for getting started. Paper for Mary McEvoy and Ken Denny, George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.




Computer-Assisted Instruction For the Special-Education Teacher:

What It Is, Its Effectiveness With Handicapped Learners,

And Some Suggestions For Getting Started


By Dallas Denny 

For Dr. Mary McEvoy and Ken Denny

Special Education 3410

February 24, 1985



A brief history of Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) is presented, followed by a discussion of the effectiveness of CAI with handicapped learners. Finally, some practical suggestions are presented for special education teachers with little or no experience with microcomputers.


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 leaching, few have found CAI to be less effective, and most have found CAI to be more effective than traditional instruction. Typical findings are that CAT 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 Retarded or Learning Disabled Student

One of the most surprising findings about CAI is that it is not the brightest students who benefit most from it, but rather the below-average pupil who 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 this population, existing software can be used with little or no modification.

For students who are severely or profoundly retarded, microcomputers can be used for computer-assisted instruction. However, existing courseware will probably not be adequate. 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 which is 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 runs on the Apple ][ series computers and trains words to sight recognition. Two arcade—style games provide practice in discriminating the individual letters of the words and the target words from others.


Some Suggestions for Getting Started

One can be an effective Special Education teacher without using microcomputers, but certainly the computer can serve many useful functions in the classroom. The teacher may well be overwhelmed by grandiose claims by competing manufacturers of both hardware and software. The sad fact is that in order to effectively use microcomputers in any capacity, some time and effort will be required. Furthermore, the transfer of learning from machines manufactured by different companies, or even from program to program on the same machine may be minimal. Nevertheless, one need not become a programmer in order to effectively enjoy and use a computer. For all widely used computers there is a wealth of magazines, tutorial programs, and books, and most cities have user groups which serve as focal points for users of individual brands of computers. Additionally, many computer stores and nearly all colleges have courses for beginning computer uses. Many computer hobbyists or computer-knowledgeable fellow educators will be glad to share some of their expertise in exchange for a pleasant supper or a box of diskettes.

It would be wise to do some or all of the above

before committing to particular hardware or software. Be sure the particular software you are interested in is available for your computer. One of the cardinal facts of computer science is that the other fellow’s software (which won’t run on your computer) is more desirable than your software (which runs on his computer, too). As a rule, software should be selected before the final hardware decision is made. However, since the school district may well have made the choice of hardware already, an attempt should be made to find software which will run on the available hardware. Never assume that a particular software package will run on your machine. Most computer stores carry a selection of software, and a wider selection is available through the mail. For many computers, there is a wide range of public domain (that is, free) software available from user groups.


If at first it seems that you will never learn what you are doing, keep plugging. It won’t be long before other teachers are coming to you with their computer problems—and you are solving them.




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

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

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

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

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

Hofmeister, A.M.; and Thorkildsen, P. 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.

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

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

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