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Explaining the Efficiency of Computer Assisted


George W. Bright

To cite this article: George W. Bright (1983) Explaining the Efficiency of Computer Assisted
Instruction, AEDS Journal, 16:3, 144-152, DOI: 10.1080/00011037.1983.11008339

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Published online: 11 Nov 2014.

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Download by: [University of California, San Diego] Date: 29 June 2016, At: 13:18
Explaining the Efficiency of Computer
Assisted Instruction
George W. Bright
Northern Illinois University
Computer assisted instruction (CAI) frequently has been shown to produce
learning indistinguishable from that produced by traditional instruction, but CAI
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seems to accomplish this equivalent learning in less time than traditional instruc-
tion. The time-on-task hypothesis and the construct of academic learning time
(ALT) seem to provide a way to explnin the apparent efficiency of CAI. CAIpro-
grams seem to have been structured to increase ALT, and this increase may result in
improved efficiency. Further improvement of CAI programs may be possible by
focusing attention on greater increases in AL T. (Keywords: academic learning time,
computer assisted instruction.)

Computer assisted instruction (CAI) has been studied for more than two
decades. Frequently these studies show that the learning generated by CAI is
indistinguishable from that generated by other teaching techniques. However,
many of these studies also report that CAI seems to accomplish these learning
goals in significantly less time. The combination of these results-equal learn-
ing in less time-may be called the CAI phenomenon; it is an observation
about the efficiency of instruction.
The CAI phenomenon has typically been interpreted as an enigma; it has
been recognized as potentially important, but the lack of understanding of in-
struction has inhibited the development of reasonable explanations of its
causes. Recent research on the effectiveness of instruction, however, provides
a framework within which the CAI phenomenon can be explained and within
which further improvement of CAI might occur.
The CAI phenomenon is important for a variety of reasons. From a teach-
er’s perspective, efficiency in instruction even for a limited number of topics
would enable either more time to be devoted to complex topics or more
topics to be taught. In either case learning might be improved. For school ad-
ministrators, efficiency can improve productivity; that is, either more learning
is achieved in the same amount of time or less time is needed to achieve the
same learning. For curriculum designers, understanding the causes of the CAI
phenomenon might suggest ways to improve the productivity of other types
of curricula and instructional products. For researchers, such understanding
might result in a better grasp of how people learn or how teachers might be
more effective.

This article is an expanded version of a presentation made at the I982 Annual Meeting
of the Associotion for Educational Data Systems in Orlnndo.

144 SPRING 1983

Computer assisted instruction materials typically have an advantage over
traditional materials in several respects. First, the content usually has been
carefully structured so that the particular objectives are more likely to be
attained. Second, branching decisions based on students’ responses have been
carefully thought through. This means at the very least that considerable
attention has been given both to identifying errors that students might make
and to creating remediation sequences for correcting misunderstandings. This
effort also implicitly influences the initial instruction, in that potential errors
are not as likely to be inadvertently taught. Hence it should not be a surprise
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when CAI materials produce as much learning as effective traditional instruc-

tion or more learning than marginal instruction (e.g., Edwards, Norton,
Taylor, Weiss, & Van Dusseldorp, 1975; Jamison, Suppes, & Wells 1974;
Kulik, Kulik, & Cohen 1980). However, when these effects are observed in
significantly less time, or at a notably faster rate, then there is cause for care-
ful analysis of the results.
Most CAI studies have not used time as a dependent variable. From a theo-
retical point of view t h i s was reasonable; until recently there was very little
information relating the effects of aspects of teaching to the time required to
learn. CAI studies that did measure time seem to have done so, at least ini-
tially, because it was easy to do and it exploited new capabilities of the
research setting. Hence, the research base supporting the existence of the CAI
phenomenon is sparsely distributed across the whole CAI research base. The
evidence, therefore, is important not for its quantity but rather for its con-
The documentation of the CAI phenomenon is taken from a variety of re-
views and syntheses of the CAI literature. This approach is taken so that the
primary focus of this paper will be on explaining the phenomenon. Molnar
(1973) cited a 1970 paper by Bunderson and stated that “CAI permits stu-
dents to achieve educational objectives in much less time and that saving in
time of up to 40% is not uncommon” (p. 68). Cody (1973) agreed that “most
of the studies . . . indicate that material can be taught by computers in sub-
stantially less time than conventional techniques, with no loss in achieve-
ment” (p. 25). Neither review, however, indicated the range of applicability
of this conclusion either by grade level or type of content.
Jamison, Suppes, and Wells (1974) were more precise, though somewhat
less enthusiastic, in concluding that “at the secondary school and college
levels . . . CAI is about as effective as traditional instruction when it [CAI] is
used as a replacement. It may also result in substantial savings of student time
in some cases” (p. 55). The reports that they surveyed were insufficient to
support any conclusion about time for younger students. Edwards, Norton,
Taylor, Weiss, and Van Dusseldorp (1975) noted, however, that in nine CAI
studies in which time was measured, all reported that CAI produced equal or
superior achievement in less time. Seven of the studies involved college-age or
adult subjects, one involved secondary school subjects, and one involved
grade 6 subjects. In six of the studies the content was science oriented, and in
the other three the content included tests and measurement, general curricu-
lum concepts, and early identification of handicapped children. Again, there
were no data relevant t o a conclusion about time for younger students.
More recently Thomas (1979) reviewed ten CAI studies in secondary
school settings and concluded “that CAI reduces the time required for a stu-
dent to complete a unit” (p. 109). The content of the studies he reviewed
ranged across mathematics, accounting, industrial arts, biology, and type-
writing. At the college level Kulik, Kulik, and Cohen (1980) reviewed eight
CAI studies that included time as a measured variable. All eight reported that
CAI students used significantly less time; on the average, CAI students used
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2.25 hours per week and conventional students used 3.5 hours per week. The
conclusion was that “[t] here appears to be little doubt that students can be
taught with computers in less time than with conventional methods of college
teaching” (p. 537). Overton (1981) in a review of about 50 CAI studies in
mathematics noted that in two post-1975 studies CAI produced results faster
than regular instruction. In the other studies she reviewed, however, time dif-
ferences were not reported. Recently Jenson (1982) used microcomputers to
teach addition facts to first through third grade students, reported that time
savings occurred, and suggested that this was because of careful repetition
only of the problems that were causing difficulty.
The measure of time in all of these studies has been the total time that a
student is exposed to the instruction, rather than only the time a student is
working. Total time is a gross measure and does not give any indication of
the quality of the interaction between the student and the instruction.
Too, all of the studies to date have treated time as an interesting but not
theoretically important variable. One result of this approach has been that the
analyses of time data have been interpreted quite superficially. There has
been little attempt to understand either the causes or the implications of


The CAI phenomenon; that is, equivalent learning in less total student
time; may relate to the ways students use time, the amount of time students
actually spend working, or the quality of involvement students have with
the content. Hence any research which addresses these concerns might prove
useful in explaining the CAI phenomenon. The Beginning Teacher Evaluation
Study (BTES) provides this kind of research evidence.
The major focus of the BTES was to identify and describe teaching skills
and their impact on student learning (Powell, 1980); data were gathered in
grades 2 and 5. Probably the major impact of the BTES, at least on under-
standing of the teaching process, is the identification of several variables
which describe the quality of interaction between a student and an instruc-
tional activity (Fisher, Berliner, Filby, Marliave, Cahen, & Dishaw, 1980).
For any academic subject there is an upper limit to the amount of time
available for the study of this subject. This is called the allocated time and is
determined by the teacher or the school district. A student will be attentive
146 SPRING 1983
to the instruction during only part of the allocated time; examples of non-
attentive behaviors are pencil sharpening and day dreaming. The attentive
time is called engaged time, and the rate of engagement might be related to
the type of instructional activity, personality traits of an individual student,
time of day, or overall atmosphere of the classroom.
Engaged time can be partitioned into three subsets according to the
success the student experiences with the activity. High success describes situ-

Allocated Time
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Engaged Time

Medium Success

Low Success

Adapted from Romberg (1980)

Academic Learning Time

Figure 1. Relationship Among Allocated Time, Engaged Time, and Academic
Learning Time


ations in which the student makes only occasional errors; low success
describes situations in which correct responses are made only at about the
chance level, and medium success describes all other situations. The amount
of engaged time spent in high success activities, called academic learning time,
proved to be one of the most important variables for predicting achievement.
The relationship among these variables is shown in Figure 1.
For the purpose of relating the BTES and the CAI phenomenon, several of
the conclusions follow (Fisher, e t al., 1980). These conclusions are all sup-
ported by appropriate significant correlations.
1. The ratio of engaged time to allocated time is positively associated with
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2. The ratio of academic learning time to engaged time is positively asso-
ciated with learning.
3. The ratio of low success, engaged time to total engaged time is nega-
tively associated with learning.
4. Accuracy in diagnosing students’ skill levels is positively associated with
both achievement and the amount of academic learning time.
5. Prescription of appropriate tasks is positively associated with both
achievement and success rate.
6 . More substantive interaction (e.g., presentation of information, feed-
back) between the student and the teacher is positively associated with
high levels of student engagement.
Several patterns seem to emerge from these conclusions. First, academic
learning time seems to be a mediating variable for achievement. This has re-
sulted in the so-called “time-on-task” hypothesis; namely, “the more aca-
demic learning time a student accumulates the more the student is learning”
(Fisher, et al., 1980, p. 8).
Second, it is important both to assign academic tasks that can be per-
formed well by students and t o avoid academic tasks that students cannot
perform at all. This means that careful analysis of students’ responses, both
correct and incorrect, followed by appropriate task assignments should pro-
mote learning.
Third, substantive involvement of the student with the task should be
maintained throughout an instructional period. Highly motivational activities
which permit interchange of information would have these characteristics.


The BTES time-on-task hypothesis provides one possible explanation ’for
the CAI phenomenon. The specific results of the BTES provide additional
evidence of the plausibility of this explanation.
If the hypothesis is true, then it is reasonable that a given level of achieve-
ment should on the average be produced by a fixed amount of academic
learning time. Thus, if the engaged time with a constant ratio of high success
can be increased, or if the ratio of high success within a fured amount of en-
gaged time can be increased, then there should be greater learning. That is, for
148 SPRING 1983
a futed achievement level, as the amount of engaged time increases or as the
ratio of high success increases, the clock time needed for learning should de-
crease. Reduced clock time for fixed achievement is precisely the CAI phe-
nomenon, and CAI seems to have the potential to increase both the amount
of engaged time and the ratio of high success rate as contrasted to traditional
The amount of time students are willing to spend with CAI materials, the
total allocated time, is noticeably longer than with many other instructional
materials. Students volunteer to give up other activities in order t o complete
CAI assignments (e.g., Jensen, 1982), and teachers who have begun using
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microcomputers typically note almost immediately that students have to be

pushed out of the computer lab at the end of the day. Newsmagazines, e.g.,
Time, and All Things Considered on National Public Radio have documented
this behavior, and some summer computer camps have adopted rules to
require campers to participate in activities other than computer usage. Simi-
larly, commercial video games have become so popular that city councils are
trying to restrict access to them by school children. Of course this behavior
may represent a novelty effect, but anecdotal evidence provided by teachers
and parents suggests that at least computer programming assignments and
video game playing sustain student interest over long periods of time.
Perhaps the increased involvement, which is precisely increased engaged
time, is related to the substantive interaction between the user and the ma-
chine, as suggested by the BTES findings. In activities in which the microcom-
puter is in control, the user is typically given immediate feedback, or more
information, which may be directly and obviously related to the particular
response the user gave. In activities in which the user is controlling the
machine, for example, writing a program, interaction is provided when the
machine either executes the program or indicates where in the program there
is an error. Apparently, then, CAI and CAI-related activities increase both the
absolute engaged time as well as the rate of engagement.
CAI also seems to increase the ratio of high success within the engaged
time. One of the originally exploited advantages of CAI was non-linear se-
quencing that could be based on particular student responses. Questions,
exercises, and problems can be selected to match a student’s previous achieve-
ment on similar activities. Remediation also can be provided when necessary
to increase the likelihood of successful completion of succeeding problems.
In addition, potentially low success problems can be avoided, thus decreasing
the time that students might be wasting or might simply be giving random re-
sponses. Even for CAI without sophisticated branching, considerable atten-
tion typically has been devoted to choosing problems that students are likely
to answer correctly. These procedures alone may increase the rate of high
The BTES findings suggest that whenever problems can be selected so that
success is high, then achievement should increase. When choices of problems
can be made within instruction and can be matched to available skills, then
the ratio of high success should increase even more. In both cases, a large
ratio of high success seems t o be built into most CAI programs, and it is rea-
sonable to expect CAI to promote achievement in less clock time.
The development of CAI programs, thus, seems t o have been structured,
though perhaps inadvertently, to increase academic learning time, through
increasing either the engaged time or the rate of high success. This was accom-
plished without the theoretical 'construct of academic learning time, so the
increase in academic learning time was probably not explicitly intended.
Rather the focus of CAI authors and researchers seems t o have been on the
achievement outcomes, that is, on the potential effect of an increase in aca-
demic learning time. This focus may have drawn attention to aspects of
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instruction that increased academic learning time, and increasing academic

learning could be a primary explanation of the CAI phenomenon.
Two caveats need t o be made regarding the accuracy of this explanation.
First, the CAI phenomenon generally has been observed with older students
and with relatively involved pieces of content, such as a whole unit. Perhaps
it depends in some way on students' characteristics, for example, formal
operations level in the Piagetian sense. Perhaps it also depends on the com-
plexity of the content and would not be observed as strongly in instruction
on skills or algorithms. Whether it applies t o instruction with young students
is essentially unresearched. Certainly the limits of the CAI phenomenon need
t o be clearly identified.
Second, the BTES data are only from grades 2 and 5. Although there are
some indications that similar conclusions might be reached for older students
(Evertson, Emmer, & Brophy, 1980), the evidence is not substantial that the
construct of academic learning time applies across all instruction.
Hence, the proposed explanation of the CAI phenomenon depends on
generalizing one result from older t o younger students and a second result
from younger t o older students. Whether these generalizations are valid must
be investigated.


The importance of explaining the CAI phenomenon is primarily that
understanding a potential cause permits intentional focusing on ways to in-
crease either the efficiency or the effectiveness of CAI. That is, previous re-
search that seems t o have increased the academic learning time seems to have
accomplished this goal more or less by accident. Studies can now be con-
ductcd to determine if academic learning time is in fact increased and if there
is a concomitant increase in achievement or decrease in clock time.
If the explanation is accurate, however, then any technique that increases
academic learning time is potentially applicable t o CAI merely because it
causes the increase. Thus, research literature should be searched to find tech-
niques that increase either the amount of engaged time or the rate of high
The amount of engaged time might be increased by increasing the interest
of the student in the activity; that is, in some general sense by increasing the
motivation of the student. Graphics, varied pacing, and intrinsic or extrinsic
150 SPRING 1983
fantasy (Malone, 1980) are three possible ways of doing this, though a
thorough review of the literature on motivation might reveal other ways.
Such techniques will presumably only work, however, insofar as they effect
academic learning time.
Increasing the success rate would seem to be a result of careful matching
of students’ past performance to the questions, exercises, and problems pre-
sented. Hence, understanding the diagnosis process would seem to be very
important for CAI authors. The literature on diagnosis is somewhat fugitive;
there are few journals devoted to it. Monographs like Beattie, Bates, Sherrill,
and Owens (1982) need to become better known for the information they
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might contribute to the development of effective diagnosis.

Most important, however, is that designers of CAI software should keep in
mind that their decisions will affect academic learning time. Recognition of
this fact alone may create an awareness of appropriate learner-machine inter-
actions that will greatly ease the development of CAI programs. Too, within
the context of academic learning time bits and pieces of instructional design;
such as, state objectives, outline the program in successively greater detail
and seem to be important for one basic reason-that they all impinge on aca-
demic learning time.
Interpretation of the CAI phenomenon within the context of academic
learning time also puts the design of CAI into the “whole cloth” of effective
instruction rather than just into the more narrow, albeit exciting, world of
CAI authoring. The unity provided by the explanation of the CAI phenom-
enon is important for progress toward the creation of a theory of CAI design
within a theory of instruction.

Dr. George W. Bright is an associate professor in the Department of Mathe-
matical Sciences at Northern Illinois University. Dr. Bright received his B.A.
and M.A. degrees in mathematics from Rice University in Houston, Texas,
and his Ph.D. in mathematics education from the University of Texas at
Austin. His recent research interests include the use of games t o teach mathe-
matics to school children and understanding errors that students make in
applying fraction and algebra algorithms and procedures. (Address: Depart-
ment of Mathematical Sciences, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL
601 15.)
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graph: Research reports from the seventh national conference on diag-
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152 SPRING 1983