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The Computer as Teacher

By Steve Hunka

In 1968 the first Canadian computer instructional system, developed by the IBM Company, was installed at The University of Alberta. A computer instructional system is basically a digital computing system which is specifically designed for use in the direct teaching of students, and as such, is relatively new to the computer field. Studying instructional computing systems becomes important to Alberta when it is possible today to communicate with computers at great distances through voice-grade telephone lines. Such communication systems when placed at the disposal of an instructional computing system make it possible to provide instruction to remote rural areas of the province. This is technically possible today using the Alberta Government Telephone system. Such remote facilities are already being provided to four Edmonton schools including an elementary school through a research project of the Division. The delivery of education to rural areas of other parts of Canada becomes even more feasible with the development of satellite communication and a possible Trans-Canada Computer Network.

The demands placed upon a computer when it is used for instruction are not minor. The computing system must be able to operate sufficiently fast to give each student the feeling that the system has his undivided attention. The computer system must be able to present pictures, such as x-rays, electrocardiograms, statistical charts, tables, and graphs, in color or black and white. The same system must be able to permit the very young child as well as the sophisticated adult to communicate with it; for example, a very young child cannot use the typewriter keyboard but has the capacity to point at an object or drawing. Similarly, the young child may not be able to read, and thus requires a voice to give him directions: a more sophisticated adult might wish to hear a recording of the sound of a defective heart. Thus, an audio system is required for the computer.

The computing system operated by the Division of Educational Research Services is an IBM 1500 system which has all the devices necessary to teach very young students as well as mature adults. This computer has connected to it nineteen learning stations. Or computer terminals. Sixteen of the learning stations contain an image projector capable of showing any one of a thousand pictures in black and white or color, a television screen on which textual material or drawings may be placed (A Hebrew or Russian character set is no problem since an author can design and hold within the computer the characters he requires for his course.) The same station has a keyboard for student responses, or the student may use a special light pencil to point to the television screen Finally, each terminal contains an audio play-record unit which can play prerecorded messages to the students or record the student's own answers for later analysis by the instructor.

Supporting the student learning stations is one small computer which was initially designed to help solve engineering problems in small consulting offices. This little computer has a fast access memory of only 32,000 words. To this has been added 5 million words of slow speed memory for the storage of special instructions and course material. The computer can also store information about the progress of each student each time the student makes a response to the computer. This information is stored on magnetic tape for later analysis on the University's larger IBM 360 67 computer. It is from this information that authors of courses improve their work.

The secret of the effective use of a computer for instructional purposes rests on the degree to which the author of a course can provide each student with individualized instruction at his own learning speed. A good classroom teacher, or a good university instructor can usually carry over to the computer lesson the necessary qualities. However, neither can decide the night before, or even a week before, what and how they will teach. A considerable amount of planning is required before the computer lesson can be started. What skills do the students have prior to taking the lesson? What subject matter have the students covered to this point? How should the subject matter be sequenced for the fast, the average, and the slow student? Exactly how should the subject matter be presented? What should be done if the student does not get the concept mastered the first or second time? All these questions must be taken into account by an author who wishes to prepare a course for teaching by the computer. To a very large extent these are exactly the same questions a good teacher or instructor operating in a classroom will ask himself.

The most outstanding application of the instructional computer during the last few months has been made by R. E. Rossall, Professor of Medicine. With the assistance of a grant from the Canadian Heart Foundation. Dr. Rossall now has all his second year medical students taking their instruction in cardiology from the computer. The cardiology course takes at most about twenty-four hours to complete, and some students are capable of completing it in half this time. The course is designed to introduce the student to the physical and hemodynamic characteristics of the heart as well as to the various heart sounds. Thus, the computer presents to each student on an individualized schedule, heart sounds, x-rays, electrocardiographs, and technical charts and graphs all in the context of an instructional environment. Intial results indicate that the students are well pleased with the method of instruction, citing the fact that each can work at his own speed and review the material and heart sounds as often as he wishes. The examination is also taken from the computer and includes diagnosis of a simulated heart patient. Other projects during the year have involved research into use of the computer for teaching young children to read. In co-operation with a local kindergarten, children as young as four years old have been taking instruction in associating words with pictures. In most instances, young children adapt to the use of the computer terminal faster than adults. Unofficial projects are sometimes created when students from local schools find out that they can enrol in a course given by the computer without having university prerequisites. Recently it was discovered that about a dozen students in grade ten from a local high school were taking a course normally offered to undergraduate students in the computer language called APL ("A Programming Language," a powerful but simple language developed by K. Iverson, originally of Camrose, Alberta).

The use of technology does not always wait for research to give direction. In order that some directions be given to the effective and wise use of the instructional computer, Donald Fitzgerald, Professor of Educational Psychology and a member of the Division, is now assembling the basis for a learning laboratory which can be used in conjunction with the instructional computer. The basis of the laboratory will be a special oculometer controlled by a mini-computer which will permit the study of the student's eye movements as he watches his lessons on the television screen. It will also be possible actually to control the material on the television screen depending upon where the student is looking.

Much of the work in this area has been supported by outside funds. In particular, research has been supported by International Business Machines of Canada, the Donner Canadian Foundation, as well as by the Alberta Human Resources Research Council. Since the National Research Council has entered the field the Division hopes that grants from this agency will also be available to it for its work.

Published Autumn 1971.

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