Computer Assisted Learning (CAL)

written 2001 being revised May 2006

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1   Introduction

This article discusses various methods and products for Computer Assisted Learning (CAL). It initailly describes the various kinds of architecture that are used for CAL and their appropriateness in different teaching situations.

Following on from that are reviews of various products designed for CAL.

Products for CAL are not included in the major body of the ICT exposition because they are not designed to teach about ICT. They are ICT tools used to teach other subjects. They are like chalk and blackbord. But, like chalk and blackboard, they require some learning before they can be used. A child cannot use a blackboard to learn if he has not yet learned to read or write. Similarly basic computer skills must be learned before CAL can be used. Students should have completed the Basic ICT material before starting to use CAL Tools.

2   The Architecture of Software Programs

CAL Tools come in three main flavours. They are distinguished by the three main ways that the programs are written to operate. These three architectures affect how the program is used. The three different architectures are applicable to three different kinds of operational environment. They are: The same application, for instance a typing tutor, can be written using any of the three architectures. The typing tutor will do basically the same job, regardless of its architecture, of providing a structured environment for a student to train himself to touchtype.

3   Stand-alone Architecture

Stand-alone programs are the most commonly encountered. Most of the programs on your PC are stand-alone. The program is totally self contained and located on your PC. Stand-alone programs are often single-user programs and this is true of programs on a PC. Some stand-alone programs on the Linux Operating System (Linux) are multi-user. In fact each executing program is single user, but multiple copies of the program may be run on the Linux computer, and these multiple programs may access common files. In addition they may have a "supervisor" mode or module which allows a "supervisor" to access the common files to perform special tasks. For this kind of architecture the program, the computer and the user have to all be in the same place. This last statement may seem obvious, but it does not reflect the general case. For instance, when you load these webpages you access programs from various computers around the globe, and the programs do not execute on the computers where they reside.

Because stand-alone programs are written to run on the same computer in which they are stored they can afford to be large, fully featured, and with lots of graphics. Consequently they are often larger than any individual needs and use a lot of computer resource.

One interesting quality of stand-alone programs is that they exist in a social vacuum. There is no socially based reward for success. These programs rely on self-motivation for successful use.

Stand-alone products are often proprietary and their manufacturers are obliged to compete in the marketplace. This means that they must differentiate their product from others in the marketplace. This differentiation compounds over time, resulting in a large product which is "different" in odd and special ways. This is not helpful in an educational environment where you want to teach generic procedures.

Differentiation adds other hidden cost to schools. Staff starting at the school may have to retrain in order to use this software. If this software is not as good as the software they were used to using, watch out! Bad morale and even staff room brawls may be the result.

Stand-alone programs tend to be proprietary products written for a particular operating system. This means that not all students will be able to use the same product at home. There are also issues of copyright though these are usually waived for software used for educational purposes.

3.1   Advantages

3.2   Disadvantages

4   Passive Web Architecture

This is usually a simple program which uses web forms to collect information and send it back to a central computer. At the central computer a second program may process the information returned, for instance make assessments.

It is in a sense the most primitive and simple way that a teacher can provide assignments over the web. Though primitive it has several advantages over written material. The posted information will be in a form available to analysis by a computer program if so desired. It can be posted from the students home as soon as the assignment is completed, no more excuses of "I'm sorry I left it at home". Other tools can be used to check for copying among students if appropriate.

This is "hands-on" technology that teachers can reuse relatively easily in an endless variety of ways. In addition it will form the basis for the development of more integrated client /server applications later.

While a minimum amout of work is required to set up a webpage form it is not a quick and easy task. It would seldom be cost effective for a teacher to set one up for a specific task from scratch as it would probably require at least an hours work. However a webpage assignment could be used by many schools and be extremely cost effective both in preparation, and in standardising assessment throughout schools.

4.1   Advantages

4.2   Disadvantages

5   Client / Server Architecture

This is the Rolls Royce Architecture. Client / Server describes two independant programs that usually reside on two different computers and communicate with each other over the net or intranet. All net based services have this kind of architecture.

There are basically no limits to the complexities that can be achieved using this environment. Advanced students will already be familiar with it because it is the basis for multi-user interactive computer games (MUDs). While not expensive to set up compared to self-tutors, this is not a simple project of it is to be done well and would need to be sponsored by a group of schools with specific design goals in mind. However basic results can be achieved quite quickly.

Client/server programs can be used for self tutoring assignments or whole courses. They can be used in the classroom or from home over the net.

Client/server applications can be developed and extended over time. Reward systems can be added in the form of fun graphics or other entertainment content. At some stage the whole can be packaged and distributed as a self-tutor for commercial resale to individuals or schools. If it is a well-used application such as a web searcher, page space can be sold to advertisers and development costs recouped this way. Particularly in education there are great openings for controlled sponsorship programs.

5.1   Advantages

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6   CAL Tools

CALMA - Computer Assisted Learning for Music Appreciation

The website gives information on the history of CALMA. In brief it was developed as an adjunct to a couse developed at the University of Huddersfield by Professor Pratt, who was concerned that music teaching was too focused on "getting the notes right" and not on musicianship. He developed a course to address this and then with the aid of a large grant set about developing a program which delivered the course structure on the computer.

While the Tool was developed within the Music Environment and is currently populated with Music material, CALMA itself is a tool with far more general use. The list of product features on the main page indicate that this product is designed for preparing coursework and presenting it using a variety of media including CD and video, and attempts to tackle issues of copyright and distribution. This definition covers CAL to a large degree and becomes generally applicable across the curriculum.

CALMA specifically deals with the perennial classroom problem of saying something and then having to find the piece of sound on CD or frame sequence on video and play it, without interrupting the flow of the lesson. CALMA provides an editor for setting up the lesson, and a player for delivering the lesson.

The player is basically the editor with its editing features disabled. It is reasonably easy to use. Calma can be used to produce two types of material:

Possible uses in music and other curriculum areas are:

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