Is There a Place for CAI in the 21st Century?

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

In the period 1960-1990 there was much hope invested in the power of this wonderful new machine, the computer, to transform education. B.F. Skinner, Patrick Suppes, Alfred Bork were among the intellectual luminaries exploring variations of the computer mystique: “CAI,” Computer-Assisted-Instruction,”CBI,” Computer-Based Instruction, “Intelligent Tutoring Systems” were widely explored and debated. Skinner’s “teaching machines” and “programmed learning” seemed destined to transform educational practice, or so his followers claimed. Thousands of students were engaged in conversation with machines calling themselves, modestly, “Plato.”

It seems safe to say that the computer tutoring movement, if it exists at all, is not now what it was then.

Now we talk of “21st Century” skills and 21st Century instruction.

One aspect of “21st Century instruction” that strikes the unwary observer is that it seems to be falling apart– or, at the very least, traditional instructional methods are subject to enormous strain.

plato july1978

To pick one segment of postsecondary education in one nation, the US: 3000 community colleges are struggling to find funds and live tutors for hordes of secondary school graduates who come to higher education without acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy. And there is some evidence that this phenomenon is everywhere, and growing.

The question then becomes: can these 20th century experiments in using the computer as a patient drillmaster, presenting to such students manageable units of instruction, noting their answers, responding to those answers with encouragement and advice, be usefully revived?

Might a new kind of partnership assign these crucial but lower-level teaching functions to machines reduce our need for the poorly paid educational peons who now do this kind of work. (What happens to the poorly paid peons when they are no longer needed is a standard part of Western economic drama.)

Are there examples of currently successful CAI and CBT experiments that we should know about?

Is there a future for such ventures, or should they be consigned to the dustbin of history?

9 Responses

  1. Several nights ago the Discovery channel aired a program that asserted the genetic inheritor of the dinosaurs are the birds we see everyday. In other words your Christmas turkey is likely the cousin of T-Rex.

    The teaching machines of the 1960-1990s era are the progenitors of the learning technologies of today’s devices. The interactivity of Web 2.0 technology owes its theoretical heritage to this early experimentattion.

    I can’t go out and find a dinosaur, nor can I find an analogue teaching machine except in a museum, but I know they existed and that they (dinosaurs and teaching machines) contributed to the work we are doing today.

    The work of Watson, Skinner, Gagne’, Bork, Suppes and more are the genetic parents of today’s online learning. It is evident the second the learner receives feedback on their performance/actions at the keyboard. I.e., “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

    By the way, Skinner boxes have been replaced, for teaching operant conditioning, by a fully interactive computer simulation called “Skippy the Rat.”

    As Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, “Renew old knowledge. Another source of rich ideas is previously plowed fields now abandoned.”

    Is there a future for such technologies? I can’t cook a turkey without thinking T-Rex.

  2. Steve, as I read your post, the thought struck me that you’re also asking us if there’s a place for teacherless practices in 21st century instructional technology (IT).

    My answer is a resounding yes!

    But I’m not limiting my thought to student-machine interactions. I’m expanding the notion of teacherless IT to include Web 2.0 interactions with (1) peers, (2) learning support staff, and (3) members of the community as well as (4) learning machines or programs.

    In other words, Web 2.0 makes it possible for us to theoretically offer teacherless classes, using IT to create learning communities that comprise students, support staff, and members of the community. Teachers could fit in as advisors or knowledgeable resources. They wouldn’t be assigned to specific classes. Instead, they’d participate in forums (see below) that are open to all freshman comp students.

    For example, as a writing instructor, I’ve long thought that a teacherless freshman comp class could work. Students would log in to the class site for instructions, schedules, resources, assignments, and evaluation criteria. Learning activities would include participation in discussion forums and creation of personal blogs.

    Students would post their papers in their blogs, peers would log in, review, and offer suggestions for improvement. The finished drafts would be reviewed by all students, including editors selected by class moderators (see below), and the best would be published in the online class journal. Before posting, the editors would ask the writers to revise their papers.

    Papers that aren’t selected for publication would receive critiques from the editors.

    Class moderators are students who have taken the class in a previous semester and earned an A. They could be paid a small stipend or be part of a service-learning project that’s expanded to include instructional support roles.

    The moderators, along with invited members of the community as well as visitors, could review the class journal and post comments re quality, etc.

    Course grades would be determined by timely completion of learning tasks and by the number of papers selected for publication. For example, to earn an A, the student would need to have at least 3 published papers; B, 2; C, 1. The student receives a D if none is selected; an F if all the tasks aren’t completed.

    Writing faculty and moderators could be required to set aside at least an hour a day, three times a week, to participate in online forums (async or sync) devoted to writing topics, problems, resources, mechanics, etc. Students in the teacherless classes could log in at any time to post questions, and their peers, moderators, or writing faculty would respond.

    This sort of real-world, market-place, student-driven learning could be, in the long run, much more sustainable (cost effective) and, in my mind, effective than current teacher-students models. And this model could be adapted for other fields besides writing.

  3. If we are looking at teacherless training in basic grammar and writing skills, if we are thinking of teacherless training as a way to “patiently” drill students over and over again with the same material until it is suitably memorized, my response to whether there is a place for this technology in twenty-first century education would have to be a resounding NO.

    It isn’t about patience, it is about how students learn and how we can design courses and assignments to create in students an investment in their own need to learn something. I have taught various forms of writing courses for more than thirty years and I am sure that the students who finally “learn” how to write discover a reason why they want to learn how to write.

    What excites me about online learning is that there seem to be more opportunities to create this need to know, as it were, whether through peer interaction, web-based research, study focus groups–the possibilities are fairly unlimited. But I don’t see using a patient drill master in the future of the kind of learning I am interested in promoting. [-Judith McDaniel]

    • Judith, if you’re willing, I’d like to ask you about Eng.101, if it still exists.

      In my time we assigned “papers” to freshmen students, read them diligently while wincing, and covered them with comments and abbreviations: “sp” and the like.

      Our little markings sent students to a textbook which turned them into advice on how to do better.

      Is that kind of practice still going on?

      If so, does it work better now than it did in my time?

      On another front of the same war:

      “Remedial” English for students not yet literate enough for Eng. 101.

      Is that still going on?

      Do the squadrons of live teachers engaged on that front really make a difference, or is that battle a kind of mock war that is never won?

      • Yes.

      • Steve–
        I’m laughing right now at Jim’s responses below and I’d have to agree with his one word succintness. And with his conclusions.

        Most recently I’ve taught gen ed classes with over 100 students and this is a class that is meant to teach them something about diversity AND research and writing. I have a TA for discussion purposes and these dear rad students truly believe in teaching writing and meet endlessly with students to improve their written responses. A few improve with one-on-one attention. A few improve after repeated feedback scribbled on their papers (our little markings) and a few actually do go to the library support webpages and learn how to cite and quote research. Most do not. About half do not know how to create a thesis or construct a paragraph of support. These are not remedial classes, which do still exist but are left to the English departments to staff. You who teach entry level college courses know all this.

        When it changes, in my experience, is when the students want something very badly (like entrance into law school) and have to perform. I have had students in my Women and the Law class make amazing progress when they were (a) convinced they needed to know how to do this to succeed and (b) given a structure that allowed them to practice and fail and repeat.

        Students at the beginning of their college careers are concerned with many things, I find, but writing clearly is generally not near the top of the list.

        I want to take up Jim’s challenge in the next few days and think in writing about those ways in which I’ve found that the online learning environment can support and motivate students in finding a desire to write well. [-Judith McDaniel]

      • Thanks, Judith M! We’ll be looking forward to your “teaching as creating a need to know” article.

        BTW, re your gen ed classes with 100 students — the system of TAs that you used could serve as a model for teacherless classes. In the new version, the lectures presented by the prof would be online in multimedia format (text, audio, video) and students would meet with TAs for F2F or online interactions.

        In the ’60s, some intro (survey) classes were offered as teacherless, self-paced classes. Students went to a lab to take quizzes, and their performance on these quizzes determined their grades. They received learning materials at the beginning of the semester that explained the process and presented the info to be mastered. I believe they studied on their own and didn’t attend lectures. I never took one of these so I don’t know if they were computerized. My guess is that the quizzes were hand scored by TAs. Still, this model could be very easily adapted to online tech.

  4. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Judith. Using a computer today for simple repetitive drilling as replacement for a teacher-led class doesn’t make much sense — unless that computer also serves as a window to a world of interactive resources that can not only take over traditional teacher roles but actually improve on them.

    I’m sure Steve’s question is meant to generate discussion on specific learning tasks that require drill, repetition, instant feedback, and mastery. When we closely examine curricula, I think we realize that nearly all courses are made up of drillable info and critical thinking that defines the field. For the former, he’s suggesting that CAI may be more efficient/effective, and this discussion is aimed at exploring this possibility.

    For the latter, critical thinking, we’d continue to rely on teachers — and with CAI managing the repetitive tasks, the teacher would have more time to focus on higher-level cognitive skills. In fact, the drills could be reserved for homework, giving the students more time in class for discussions that support, develop, and encourage critical thinking.

    IT (instructional technology) is a tool, as others have said, and it’s only as good as the hand that uses it. In the hands of one instructor, it could reduce learning to mindless drills, but in the hands of another, it could provide an efficient road to mastery while freeing up more time for those tasks that require teachers.

  5. Judith, on another note, I’m intrigued by your statement: “What excites me about online learning is that there seem to be more opportunities to create this need to know, as it were, whether through peer interaction, web-based research, study focus groups–the possibilities are fairly unlimited.”

    Please consider starting a discussion on this topic, following the pattern developed by John Sener (“How to Turn Your Online Program into a Net Revenue Generator”) and replicated by Steve Eskow (” Is There a Place for CAI in the 21st Century?”). Email it to me and I’ll set it up in ETC.

    I believe you’re pointing to the key to successful teaching — creating a need to know. When curiosity is piqued or a burning desire to learn the truth is created, learning follows naturally, swiftly.

    I would definitely like to learn more about how we could use the latest IT to create, within our students, the need to know.

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