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?