computer aided learning

Computer Aided Learning: From pre-history to where we’re at in late 2018

Computer aided learning represents some of the most effective forms of learning available. But computers have been commonplace for decades now and some of the initial advances are looking long in the tooth. In this article we’ll look at where computer aided learning came from, where it’s been, where it’s at and where it’s going. But first…

What is Computer Aided Learning?

Computer aided learning is a self-descriptive term that literally means learning with computers. However, our understanding of what a computer is and can do has changed considerably over the past century meaning that the definition has evolved considerably too. Now computer aided learning means learning on mobile phones, virtual reality and augmented reality in addition to desktop and laptop computer interaction. Consequently, any differences between computer aided learning and eLearning have all but vanished and eLearning has become the more-commonly used over-arching term for learning with computers.

Where did computer aided learning (CAL) come from?

If we skip through the first million years of human history and ignore the Abacus, arguably the first device to resemble a computer aided learning system came from cognitive psychologist, Sydney L, Pressey from Brooklyn, USA. Aside from the fact it appeared in the 1920s and therefore predates Alan Turing’s Nazi-busting first-generation computer, his typewriter-like machine had a window which displayed questions and multiple choice buttons which recorded answers and advanced the displayed questions. So despite being more mechanical than computational, it still resembles the most advanced forms of mobile learning that we perform today on our phones!

Pressey's automatic testing machine was one of the first strives towards computer aided learning.
Pressey’s automatic testing machine was ahead of its time. Source.

A progression for this came from Stanford University where Teletypes were used to perform arithmetic and spelling drills to elementary school children in Silicon Valley in the 1960s.

Something of a not-so-missing-link between typewriters and computers, the Teletype was an early foray into computer aided learning.
Something of a not-so-missing-link between typewriters and computers, the Teletype was an early foray into computer aided learning. Source.

Wikipedia cites the Illinois university in 1960 to be the first to share course materials on its internal network with the first online course being available in 1986 via the Electronic Learning Network. After that home computers became ubiquitous though eLearning really took off in 2002 when MIT put its courses online.

Where has computer aided learning been?

When computers became ubiquitous in schools in the 1980s, a wonderfully fragmented variety of computer aided learning systems came into existence. 

This is exactly what all the cool kids looked like in 1980s schools-ish.
This is exactly what all the cool kids looked like in 1980s schools-ish. Source.

Hopes were that computers would make our dumb kids smart and even that teachers would not be required in classrooms anymore (they also thought shoulder pads, day-glo spandex and high-heels with swimsuits were the best things ever). 

Computer aided learning replacing or helping teachers in the 1980s. Thankfully the former was true.
Computer aided learning replacing or helping teachers in the 1980s. Thankfully the former was true. Source.

Once home computers (and PCs in particular) became relatively-ubiquitous in the 1990s they were quickly followed by CD-ROM-based educational software and reference material (including digitised encyclopedias).

For a brief moment in computing history, the ability to store a library's worth of encyclopedias on just a few CD-ROMs captivated the world.
For a brief moment in computing history, the ability to store a library’s worth of encyclopedias on just a few CD-ROMs captivated the world. Source.

However, the world of eLearning would seriously start to flourish as home internet connections (and especially broadband) started to appear. This coincided with the launch of a Search Engine that actually worked properly.

Before Google there were arguments about which terrible search engine was best. Consensus shifted between the likes of Alta Vista, Lycos and Ask Jeeves beforehand.
Before Google there were arguments about which terrible search engine was best. Consensus shifted between the likes of Alta Vista, Lycos and Ask Jeeves beforehand. Source.

Computer aided learning was being used in both educational and industrial training scenarios.

Dawn of the Learning Management System

Around this time the first Learning Management Systems (LMS) appeared. LMS were frameworks which presented knowledge, distributed it and recorded interactions with it. Early variants revolved around Drill-and-Practice techniques but things have progressed rapidly.

Wikipedia states, “The first fully featured Learning Management System (LMS) was called EKKO, developed and released by Norway’s NKI Distance Education Network in 1991…  In 2000, the University of Zurich revolutionized the concept of digitized learning by introducing the first open-source LMS called OLAT. A year later, the LMS development industry welcomed the SCORM format  which transformed eLearning by allowing multiple electronic-based training materials to be bundled into one, universal package. SCORM is very much still around, but it’s limiting in the modern-world of computing. However, part of it would later evolve into xAPI which is still a useful system which allows non-traditional eLearning types to be connected to each other.

Where is computer aided learning now?

There are still many LMS that show content and ask questions in a variety of engaging and interactive ways, but one of the most effective methods of eLearning has been recognised as microlearning. This is where topical information is broken down into bite-sized chunks which even unwilling adults (who may not have had to learn much for many years) can learn about new processes and policies in an effective manner.

With the proliferation of smart phones, mobile learning has also flourished and allows powerful, interactive courseware and learning materials to be distributed globally to learners’ pockets. Thanks to availability being shifted to individuals’ personal devices, personalised learning has become possible and learners can learn at their own pace. The ease of distribution means that just-in-time training is also available with the ability to distribute specialist microlessons on-demand as required. Learning can be made even more effective through gamification.

Where is computer aided learning going?

As phones get smarter, so do their (learning) applications. Virtual Reality-flavoured computer aided learning is already possible thanks to easily-available headsets and interactive systems such as Google Daydream and Samsung Gear VR.

Google's Daydream lets you virtually walk around major places of interest.
Google’s Daydream lets you virtually walk around major places of interest.

This allows a learner to be fully immersed into a virtual environment where they can literally become the topic of their learning whether it’s performing a task or acting out a real-world scenario in a fake environment. However, content is expensive to create and difficult to produce and distribute at present and so we are only in the early stages. Still, seeing what the likes of Nvidia allow with its PC-based Holodeck virtual environment – which allows engineers from around the world collaborate in virtual workshops (among many other opportunities) is eye-opening. One day this will be possible via phones!

Even more recently, the likes of Epson’s Moverio Augmented Reality system now plugs directly into smartphones. As such learning information can be created via an app and distributed on demand as an overlay to the real world. For more on these technologies check out our 10 Best and Worst Types of Microlearning feature. The future of computer aided learning isn’t just jaw-dropping, to a limited degree, it’s here already!

If you’d like to know more about microlearning and how it can help your company or organisation train workers and educate people, sign-up to Ed Microlearning for free, below.

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