Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) represents a teaching tool that involves the use of a computer program or programs to facilitate the education of a group of students or individuals. Its major goal is to provide practical instruction through interactive programs that teach effectively. The method was first introduced in the 1960s. Since then it has evolved so that in the twenty-first century computers are an integral part of the education process in the developed countries.
Even though there are many types of educational computer use, not all are defined as CAI. This term generally refers to educational activities, in which a computer program is used to teach a passive student, or to such courses in which the computer acts as a platform for the creation of a personalized and interactive learning environment. CAI can be used alone or in combination with other teaching methods. According to certain studies, the combination of CAI and teacher-assisted instruction (TAI) is highly effective in bolstering students' achievements.
CAI can be applied to all ages and forms of educations, from preschool to professional school and even in many employment areas. It can be used in a wide range of fields, including all the main disciplines in elementary and secondary school. CAI is also applied in the training of nurses, jet engine mechanics, food service workers, law students and many more. It can assist with the teaching of people with physical limitations, learning disabilities and language limitations.
As the use of CAI varies depending on the target group and subject, CAI programs never follow a single theoretical model of instruction. In many of them the instruction is organized as interaction between a student and a teacher. Other programs seek to create an engaging and motivating environment in a drive to encourage the learning process.
CAI programs are developed to offer a specific kind of student interaction with the computer screen. For CAI developers the computer screen represents a programmable interactive communications medium. As these programs seek to address the needs of a particular group of students, their developers aim to create a program that would teach effectively and feature all the available experience and expertise. Each CAI program is tailored for a specific domain, topic and group of students.
One of CAI's key objectives is to provide a rich diversity of environments and problems. To achieve that the programs developed for a single course may differ drastically in their goals, tasks and style. Due to the work's complexity, CAI program developers are required to have significant experience in the computer medium.
There are several aspects of CAI that facilitate learning. These include the ability to personalize information; the presence of animating objects on the screen; the available practice activities that incorporate challenges and curiosity and the fact that it provides a fantasy context and gives the learner a choice over their own learning process.
The advantage of personalizing information is that it boosts the students' interest in a given task. It is easier for a person to integrate new information if his or her name or some other familiar contexts appear in a problem. This is especially true when talking about teaching children and young people.
The animation of objects that are part of the explanation of a concept scales down the cognitive load on one's memory and thus facilitates learning. This feature of CAI is especially helpful when dealing with natural sciences such as physics. It allows the student to perform search and recognition processes and to make more informational relationships.
CAI lifts up the student's motivation as it provides him or her with a more challenging and stimulating context than conventional teaching methods. Increased motivation may lead to personal satisfaction and the feeling of challenge. It can also create a positive perspective on lifelong leaning.
Using computers in the education process provides a fantasy context that serves to facilitate engagement. According to Greta G. Fein and Jerome L. Singer who studied the effect of play on children's education, the involvement in fantasy as a whole is highly intrinsically motivating.
Another thing that bolsters one's motivation when using CAI is the presence of choice. When a student can control instruction and make choices, he or she gets more motivated, which enhances the learning process. At the same time, the lack of choice in instruction that is not controlled by the learner may have a negative impact on learning. Having control over the process and making choices makes the student feel more competent and self-determined.