Computer Science; Information Systems
Computer-assisted instruction is the use of computer technology as a means of instruction or an aid to classroom teaching. The instructional content may or may not pertain to technology. Computer-assisted instruction often bridges distances between instructor and student and allows for the instruction of large numbers of students by a few educators.
In a traditional classroom, a teacher presents information to students using basic tools such as pencils, paper, chalk, and a chalkboard. Most lessons consist of a lecture, group and individual work by students, and the occasional hands-on activity, such as a field trip or a lab experiment. For the most part, students must adapt their learning preferences to the teacher's own pedagogy, because it would be impractical for one teacher to try to teach to multiple learning styles at once.
Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) supplements this model with technology, namely a computing device that students work on for some or all of a lesson. Some CAI programs offer limited options for how the material is presented and what learning strategies are supported. Others, known as learner-controlled programs, are more flexible. A typical CAI lesson focuses on one specific concept, such as long division or the history of Asia. The program may present information through audio, video, text, images, or a combination of these. It then quizzes the student to make sure that they have paid attention and understood the material. Such instruction has several benefits. First, students often receive information through several mediums, so they do not have to adapt to the teacher's preferred style. Second, teachers can better support students as they move through the lessons without having to focus on presenting information to a group.
CAI has both benefits and drawbacks. Certain software features make it easier to navigate the learning environment, such as word prediction to make typing easier and spell-checking to help avoid spelling mistakes. Copy-and-paste features save users time that they would otherwise spend reentering the same information over and over. Speech recognition can assist students who are blind, have physical disabilities, or have a learning disability that affects writing. Other helpful features are present despite not having been intended to benefit students. For example, CAI video lessons include the option to pause playback, skip ahead or back, or restart. These functions can be vital to a student who is struggling to grasp an especially difficult lesson or is practicing note-taking. They can stop the video at any time and restart it after catching up with the content that has been presented. By contrast, in a regular classroom, the lecturer often continues at the same pace regardless how many students may be struggling to understand and keep up.
Learning is rarely a “one size fits all” affair. Different topics pose greater or lesser challenges to different students, depending on their natural abilities and study habits. In regular classrooms, teachers can often sense when some students are not benefiting from a lesson and adapt it accordingly. With some CAI, this is not an option because the lesson is only presented in one way.
Fortunately, some forms of CAI address different learning rates by using adaptive methods to present material. These programs test students’ knowledge and then adapt to those parts of the lesson with which they have more difficulty. For instance, if a math program notices that a student often makes mistakes when multiplying fractions, it might give the student extra practice in that topic. Adaptive programs give teachers the means to better assess students’ individual needs and track their progress. As the technology improves, more detailed and specific results may bolster teachers’ efforts to tailor instruction further.
CAI is especially important to the growing field of online education. Online instructors often use elements of CAI to supplement their curricula. For example, an online course might require students to watch a streaming video about doing library research so that they will know how to complete their own research paper for the course. Online education also enables just a few instructors to teach large numbers of students across vast distances. Tens of thousands of students may enroll in a single massive open online course (MOOC).
—Scott Zimmer, JD
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