On-Line Interactive Computer-Assisted Learning

Alan J. Cann

Lecturer in Virology
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
University of Leicester, UK

Computer-assisted learning (CAL) is a powerful solution to many of the issues that confront teachers in higher education--the need to innovate in course delivery and to accommodate increasing numbers of students, sometimes at physically distant sites, without an associated increase in resources. On-line, interactive CAL, delivered via the World Wide Web (WWW), is a dynamic open learning resource that has many advantages over pre-authored, fixed platform CAL packages. In addition to their advantages for students, such systems also provide powerful and flexible tools for course administration.

Computer-assisted learning (CAL) provides perhaps the best opportunity for student self-guided learning. It is self-paced and self-planned, with the students themselves choosing their own paths through the mass of information encompassed by the package. Successful use of such packages will not only increase students' knowledge, but will require them to develop other important skills, including self-assessment and planning of studies, information technology skills, creativity, and self-motivation.

Interactive computer-based courseware represents a move towards active learning (i.e., student self-guided teaching) and can be used as a constantly available learning resource for students. The particular virtues of this type of courseware are as follows:

In its first two years of operation, the flexible, interactive system I have developed has been used extensively by undergraduate students at all levels and is proving to be a popular additional source of detailed factual information and as a method of learning important concepts in biology and medicine. This is an extremely low cost approach to delivery of CAL, which makes maximum use of the HEI's existing investment in network technology.

For an on-line demonstration, click here.


This project, now in its third year, is currently in use at all levels (first to final year). Students like both the use of Netscape (especially the transparent operation of plug-ins, imagemaps, animated gifs) and the e-mail or on-line submission of assignments (staff workload reduced).

We are increasingly dealing with an Information Technology (IT) competent generation. In a recent survey, our students identified themselves (their own terms) as:

  1. like CAL (the nerds)
  2. comfortable with CAL (the normals)
  3. 30% unhappy with CAL (the phobes)

(Note: 2% did not reply).

Lessons Learned

Students don't like and in some cases will not even tolerate

Meeting students' expectations of multimedia has also been a problem. They want a Superhighway; we tend to deliver a muddy footpath.

Administrative problems have included the fact that funding has been not forthcoming from a hard-pushed institutional budget for this development, but small sums have been obtained from a variety of external sources. There have been cross-platform difficulties (increasingly being overcome).

Integration into course structures is the most important aspect of CAL in the long term. This is clearly demonstrated by the positive response to CAL in modules/courses where it forms a central element of

contrasted with the negative response in modules/courses where CAL is perceived by students to be a peripheral addition.

Recent studies at Leicester University indicate that thoughtfully and appropriately applied, CAL packages offer modest improvements in student academic achievement but significant resource savings for academic institutions (MacDonald, Z. personal communication). On-line interactive CAL maximizes the potential gains both for students and for teaching staff.

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