Computer-Assisted Instruction Essay

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American education has long incorporated technology in K–12 classrooms—tape recorders, televisions, calculators, computers, and many others. Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) refers to the use of computers and computer-related applications such as the Internet to support instruction and cognition. CAI also takes into consideration the processes involved in the integration of these technologies into existing curricula. Research on the effectiveness of computer use on educational outcomes is mixed, but suggests that computer-based instruction increases student achievement at least as much as more conventional modes of instruction. While information technologies, more specifically desktop computers, have had an enormous impact on American business and how business is transacted over the past several decades, instruction at the K–12 level has not undergone the “megachange” that technology was predicted to produce in U.S. schools. However, CAI is still an important component of curriculum in the Information Age. CAI may include: assessment of students, presentation of educational materials, repetitive drill practice, game-based drills, and tracking of student performance and progress. This entry looks at the growth of CAI from a tool used to facilitate drills to a central player in preparing students for a digital society.

Early Applications

The first computers used for instruction were computer-driven flight simulators used to train pilots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s. Before the introduction of microcomputers, computer companies such as IBM pioneered efforts in helping to define the role of computers in education. In 1959, schoolchildren used IBM computers for the first time, for solving arithmetic problems.

In the early 1970s, IBM produced the first instructional mainframe with multimedia learning stations and worked with universities to develop CAI materials. For example, Stanford University’s Patrick Suppes, considered the grandfather of CAI, developed the Coursewriter language to create reading and math drill-and-practice lessons, setting the standard for subsequent instructional software. After systematically analyzing courses in arithmetic and other subjects, Suppes designed highly structured computer systems featuring learner feedback, lesson branching, and student recordkeeping. During the 1970s, another influential source of CAI was the University of Illinois PLATO system.

This system included hundreds of tutorial and drill-and-practice programs. Like other systems of the time, PLATO’s resources were available through timesharing on a mainframe computer. Mainframes and minicomputer CAI systems, often developed by universities to serve school districts, dominated the field at the time. However, high maintenance costs and teachers’ dislike of centralized control by district personnel eventually led to a decline in their use by the late 1970s.

With the development of the stand-alone, desktop computer in the late 1970s, control of educational computers was in the hands of teachers. Educational software became more widely available and was designed to meet teachers’ classroom needs. With federal funding, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) became the single largest computer software provider at the time. Teachers initially sought to be actively involved in the creation of software and other facets of computing, but interest faded as teachers realized how time consuming that would be. To make CAI more cost effective, districts purchased integrated learning systems (ILSs) that were administered via a central network and that used prepackaged curricula to support standards-based instruction, shifting control of educational computing again to a central source.

In the late 1970s, the idea of CAI developed into computer literacy, as skills in programming and word processing were seen as essential for functioning in society. Non-computer-literate students were predicted to become educationally disadvantaged. Lack of agreement on what exactly these “essential” computing skills should be and how to best measure them caused this idea to fade. In the 1980s, mathematician Seymour Papert’s LOGO programming language sought to shift the focus from drill-and-practice applications of technology to viewing computers as a tool for problem solving. While some research did indicate positive effects from the use of LOGO, by the 1990s, LOGO was all but forgotten in educational circles.

In the 1970s and 1980s, drill-and-practice software was readily available and commonly used in classrooms. Often mimicking electronic flash cards or workbooks, this type of software showed math problems or tested vocabulary, giving simple feedback after a student response. However, incorrect answers often yielded more intricate or interesting forms of feedback, leading students to purposely give wrong answers. Further, issues with a limited catalog of software titles, aging hardware in the schools, inadequate staff development, and a perceived lack of direct correlation between technology and traditional school curricula led to a waning interest in educational technology.

The Internet Era

The dawning of the Internet era in the 1990s reignited teacher interest in using CAI. Mosaic, the first browser software, transformed a formerly text-based Internet, used predominantly by the engineering and scientific communities, into an easily accessible medium combining text and graphics. With the arrival of the new millennium, educators and students delighted in the connectivity that the Internet era ushered in. Further, the proliferation of educational software titles, efforts to address compatibility issues among operating systems, and successful attempts at meaningful integration of school curricula with emerging technologies spurred educators to reevaluate technology’s role in classrooms. E-mail, videoconferencing, portable wireless devices, multimedia capability, and ease of access to online resources led to increases in distance learning opportunities.

While educational games and drill-and-practice software continued to be popular in schools, common uses of CAI now routinely include tutorials, simulations, and other open-ended applications to encourage divergent thinking. As new technologies were being adapted for classroom use, the International Society for Technology in Education developed the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for teachers, students, and administrators to provide a framework to guide classroom activities and foster the cohesion that was previously lacking.

CAI software, often called instructional software, teaches specific skills and knowledge, often narrowed to a specific content area and grade range. This is in contrast to tool software, which can be used in general to help students through problem processing at any grade level and in any content area, including word processors, concept processors for outlining ideas, spreadsheets, databases, audio-video editors, presentation programs, Web browsers, Logo programming language, and others.

Today, computers are powerful enough to act as file servers, and CAI can be delivered either through an integrated learning system or as stand-alone software. Typical CAI software provides text and multiplechoice questions or problems to students, offers immediate feedback, notes incorrect responses, summarizes students’ performance, and generates exercises for worksheets and tests. CAI typically presents tasks for which there is one correct answer; it can evaluate simple numeric or very simple alphabetic responses, but it cannot evaluate complex student responses.

Outcomes Research

While the ubiquity of classroom technologies cannot be denied, clear impact on student academic achievement is not easy to determine because of sparse empirical evidence mostly due to methodological problems. A great deal of research was conducted during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s on the effects of computer use on student achievement, attitudes, and other variables. Lack of depth in CAI inquiries makes generalizations difficult. Studies of effectiveness often pit one computer application against another or compare computer based methods to teacher-directed activities. This type of “horse-race” research mentality does not yield effective data from which to draw conclusions.

Despite the lack of comprehensive studies of overall use, substantial research has examined the effects of using computers for particular kinds of instruction across a wide range of topics and age groups. Qualitative inquiries on the uses of computers in classroom instruction have documented positive effects on student affect and student and teacher motivation, as well as some positive impact on learning in specific classroom contexts.

Research clearly indicates that merely installing the hardware does not produce the desired outcomes. One of the main reasons for this is that technology has often been introduced as an addition on to an existing, unchanged classroom setting. Nowadays educators have a more integrated vision in which technology is considered together with the educational strategies, contents, and activities of the classroom, realizing that successful and effective learning with computers must rely on sound instructional practices that are congruent with how teaching and learning are viewed today.

Social Context

Historically and presently, the introduction of technologies in education has at times coincided with a need to improve educational outcomes or solve problems in U.S. schools. For example, after the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the National Defense Education Act sought to place overhead projectors in classrooms as a way to improve science and math achievement in public schools. In the 1960s, educational television for youngsters, often featuring culturally diverse children and themes, brought into focus a changing U.S. demographic and their social and literacy needs. Educational television flourished, capturing the interest of the American populace. After the publication of the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, which highlighted the shortcomings of American schools, educational reformers urged better integration of CAI to support a student-centered, inquiry-based mode of learning in classrooms.

During the 1990s state and federal initiatives sought to increase educational technology in classrooms and to link the nation’s classrooms to the Information Super Highway in an effort to prepare students for the world of work in a digital society. The sophisticated educational software available today bears only minimal semblance to early electronic applications. Today, electronically linked text, or hypertext, “intelligent” computer tools that shape computer programs to suit learner needs, and integrated learning systems that monitor progress in academic subjects provide an endless number of CAI opportunities. A strong argument for increasing CAI is that computers are essential for preparing students for an increasingly digital world. Add to this the likelihood that school will be the only place the urban poor will ever use a computer before going into the job market, and it becomes even more imperative that schools maximize how CAI is used.

Presently, many state and national educational initiatives are supporting technology reform efforts in many schools. Educators realize that electronic communication is becoming less an option and more a requirement for students’ success in the twenty-first century. The International Reading Association recognized this in its 2001 position statement on integrating technology into the literacy curriculum. Becoming fully literate, the association argues, includes becoming proficient in the new literacies of information and communication technology. Therefore, literacy educators have a responsibility to integrate emerging technologies into the literacy curriculum in order to adequately prepare students for their role in society. In simplest terms, information and communication technologies in and out of the classroom are redefining teaching and learning.


  1. Barron, A. E., Kemker, K., Harmes, C., & Kalaydjian, K. (2003). Large-scale research study on technology in K–12 schools: Technology integration as it relates to the National Technology Standards. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 35, 489–507.
  2. Cuban, L., Kirkpatrick, H., & Peck, C. (2001). High access and low use of technologies in high school classrooms: Explaining an apparent paradox. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 813–834.
  3. Papert, S. (1994). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Roblyer, M. D., Castine, W. H., & King, F. J. (1988). Assessing the impact of computer-based instruction: A review of recent research. New York: Haworth Press.

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