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Development of a Model for Computer Supported Learning Systems

- Thomas N. Janicki, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
- George P. Schell, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
- Jay Weinroth, Kent State University


Educational content on the Internet is rapidly increasing.  Academicians and businesses are placing more course material on-line to supplement classroom and business training situations.  Significant increases in undergraduate enrollments in Information System courses and the rapid pace of new knowledge in the field lead researchers to call for innovative approaches to learning.  Prior researchers have reported that Web-based training technology (which has its foundation in computer-based training) has not integrated sound pedagogical practices into the authoring process when developing new tutorials.  This research reviews basic learning theories, instructional design theories, and factors affecting successful Web-based tutorials.  A model synthesizing instructional design pedagogy and Web-design concepts is proposed.


Educational content on the Internet is rapidly increasing.  Academicians are placing more course material on-line to supplement and sometimes replace classroom instruction.  Recognizing potential new marketing opportunities, universities are placing entire courses on the Web to attract new students from around the world.  The typical use of the Web is changing from technical to educational  Professionals from computer technical fields comprised 31.4% of all Web users in 1995, while individual users for educational purposes totaled 23.7%.  In just one year computer occupation users dropped to 29.6% while educational users jumped to 27.8% of the Web’s overall users (Robin & McNeil, 1997).

Businesses are also utilizing the Internet as the delivery vehicle for a portion of their training needs.  The reasons are reduction of travel costs, saving of personnel time, the capability to deliver the same consistent program across the nation or world, and the flexibility to meet rapidly changing needs (just-in-time training for specific needs). Business course offerings pushed the distance training market up by 20% between 1994 and 1996 (Barrett-Murie, 1996).  McGee (1998) reports that Web-based instructional materials are the fastest growing means to deliver training within business organizations.

Hamalainen etal (1996) and Robin & McNeil (1997) maintain that education has the potential to be the key application in electronic commerce.  However, they warn that new technology alone will not make Web-based tutorials and learning modules more effective.  Hamalainen et al predict only marginal improvements in student performance if Web developers continue to re-implement traditional and conventional models borrowed from the classroom.  Their prediction is based on a review of the current offerings of Web-based educational content.  They find these to be mostly tutorials that passively transmit information or data.  By itself, more technology will not make education more efficient.  Robin & McNeil (1997) also support this opinion and call for new innovation modules of production, presentation, and delivery that take advantage of the Internet’s power that emphasize the capability of the learners to participate.

At the current time there does not seem to be consensus on what comprises effective learning modules.  This paper will briefly review the literature in the arena of computerized learning modules and synthesize a model we call Computer Supported Learning System (CSLS).  This model will assist in the development of tutorials and learning modules based on accepted learning concepts while utilizing the power of the computer.  This model is not intended to be a course management tool such as WebCT or BlackBoard, but rather a model to help develop learning content that could be placed inside a course management tool based on pedagogy.  One way in which such an approach can be used by the instructor is to develop one or more modules of learning content each corresponding to information about a particular topic within a chapter.  Alternately this approach can be used to develop 'stand-alone' lesson plans for Web applications.  In any case, as we shall see, courses developed for Web dissemination need to have a flexible design approach and the capacity to accommodate several differing pedagogical approaches.


A review of the content of materials on the World Wide Web (WWW) finds it to provide a fertile ground for increased educational offerings. The decade of the 1990's produced a rapid growth in the number of Web-based courses and new virtual universities.  Virtual universities supply their course content over the Internet to its students.  They are not limited to attracting students to a bricks and mortar location.  A virtual university needs high-speed telecommunications equipment, not physical classrooms, to enroll students.  Many institutions have merged efforts and jumped on the virtual university bandwagon.  One example of the virtual university phenomenon is the Southern Regional Electronic Campus that inaugurated its Web presence in 1999 combining the efforts of fifty colleges and universities in sixteen southern states.  It currently has over 170 colleges and universities participating (SREC-Internet). 

Non-traditional suppliers of educational content have also entered the Web-based and distance learning arenas to challenge traditional universities and colleges for educational dollars and students.  For example, in March of 1999, Jones Cable began its Mind Extension University degree programs via distance learning (MSNBC-Internet).  Mind Extension University started by broadcasting videotapes of classroom lectures in the 1970's and grew to offer full semester courses.  Another non-traditional virtual education business is the for-profit University of Phoenix.  It has 2,600 virtual classrooms with over 40,000 worldwide students (Gubernick & Eberling, 1997).  It currently has 1,500 instructors at over 80 regional campuses in the United States and world.  Many of these instructors are work-for-hire academics from other institutions (UP-Internet).

Ives and Jarvenpaa (1996) assert that the private sector will eclipse the public sector as the predominant educational institution in the next decade.  They warn that the private sector can be a major threat to the health of traditional colleges and universities.  They recommend that universities work with industries to enhance learning opportunities.  They state a synergy exists between the two groups in that businesses need a qualified employee pool. Universities can maintain high enrollments by providing talented individuals for this employer pool.

An example of combining of efforts between universities and business proposed by Ives and Jarvenpaa has occurred.  Business schools at the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie-Mellon University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and southern California Universities are participating in a commercial venture with Westcott Inc. to develop graduate level distance educational courses.  In another venture, AT&T has joined with eight universities to provide network services and products while the universities provide the learning content (Bryne, 1995).

Technology can assist in learning because it provides a platform for a variety of tools and innovative methods to reach learners with different backgrounds, ages, and learning needs (Rakes, 1996).  Technology's interactivity features may be used for hands-on examples, models of real world situations, and other problems faced by citizens or business professionals in their day-to-day responsibilities (Jonassen et al, 1995).  Alavi (1994) believes that computer-based training and Web-based technologies can enhance three primary keys of learning: active learning and construction of knowledge, cooperation and teamwork in learning, and learning via problem solving.  There has been research providing evidence that computer assisted learning is as effective as conventional teaching styles and in some disciplines superior to conventional teaching (Flecter-Finn & Gravett, 1995), (Filipczak, 1995) and (Patterson & Smith, 1994). 


Many educators, students, and employers intuitively feel the integration of the computer into learning experience will enhance learning.  This should increase the student’s ability to apply knowledge and skills to future problem solving situations (Alavi, 1994).  Despite this belief, Alavi states this computer technology had not integrated sound pedagogical practices into the development of new learning modules either as a stand-alone lesson or combined with a classroom setting. 

Robin & McNeil (1997) and Hamalainen et al (1996) identify a need for new paradigms of education.  These new paradigms must take advantage of the interactivity of the Web.  Bork (1986) warns that when developers apply the computer to learning situations they often tend to merely transpose books and lectures into Web-based materials.  These developers miss the opportunity to take advantage of the computer's capability to create interactive learning environments.

Schank (1998) also promotes the idea that new Web-based courses must be different from current Web-based course offerings.  He has found that general methodology and the instructional pedagogy of the current material are poor.  A reason that these modules have not achieved their full educational potential is that many of these systems present information, but do not necessarily teach (Schank, 1993).  He proposes that more one-on-one conversation and teaching based on learning concepts need to occur.  He envisions new software that emulates good teaching, and allows a designer to build in a virtual teacher into the module.  This automated teacher would adjust the teaching approach and degree of feedback based on the needs of the current learner.

Murray (1998) states that early developers of Web-based instructional materials were more skilled in programming applications than they were in educational principles.  He reviewed the courseware available on the Web and concluded that the course materials are difficult to build and costly as they generally are started from scratch.  Each new course starts anew and does not use a template from prior classes.  Also, he discusses the point that the developers of these modules primary build them based on their own teaching or learning style, so that these are not necessarily grounded in effective pedagogy.  Murray continues that most university professors never had a course in educational theory and wonders if they really know how to incorporate learning theories into an electronic module. 

Murray notes that many professors learn to teach by experience.  The question becomes "can their learned teaching methodogy be converted to computer-based methods?"  Complicating the issue of effective Web-based material is the fact that those professionals who are trained in learning (traditional teachers) often lack the technical skills to implement a Web-based course.  Kearsley (1998) laments that teachers are often ill prepared to use technology, since they often have taken no more than one or two courses in technology.  The tool presented later in this research supports instructors with modest technological skills in applying fairly complex technology to their instructional presentations.

Hamalainen etal (1996) call for a new model of course production, delivery and presentation.   Such a model must combine a flexible design approach with the ease of dissemination without sacrificing the effectiveness of learning. In addition, this model must incorporate two different perspectives.  First it must take advantage of the Web’s interactive technology.   Secondly it must incorporate design features from a pedagogical perspective. 

As one effort to realize the sort of model called for by Hamalainen, the research reported in this paper is involved with a Web-based approach to learning rather than a CBT (Computer Based Training) approach.  Whereas the content of  a CBT approach is 'static' and fixed in its nature, a Web-based approach to learning is dynamic and easily updated by links to new sources of information.

The number of educational offerings on the Web will continue to rapidly grow, but the effectiveness and quality of the materials published can be improved.  The following types of questions emerge: 1) What should be the pedagogy or pedagogies for Web-based learning modules and 2) does this pedagogy (or these pedagogies) differ from that of traditional classrooms? 


The group of capabilities listed below repeatedly surface in the literature about the effectiveness of computer-based and Web-based learning modules.  Those system capabilities listed as increasing that effectiveness are:

·        Providing a stimulus with rapid feedback

·        Supporting individualism

·        Using repetition

·        Merging of prior knowledge with new knowledge

·        Creatively changing the role of the instructor

In parallel fashion, those effective Web design features frequently mentioned are:

·        Non-linear approach to the lesson

·        Consistent layout design

·        Help menus

·        Variety of presentation styles.

Each of these will be explained in the following section.

Instructional Design Concepts

            Instructional technology theories have their foundation in the behavior, cognitive, and resource-based theories of learning styles.  Behavioral psychology (also known as Skinnerian or stimulus response psychology) is based on the premise that learning results from the pairing of response with stimuli (Hannafin & Peck, 1988.)  In this view, a quick response to a stimulus helps the individual to learn.  An example of this pairing of a response to a stimulus follows:

Stimulus:                     What is a browser?

Assume the student answers incorrectly:
It is a software application that permits a user to type word documents.


Response:                     An instructor provides the response, that the answer is incorrect and additional feedback to provide guidance to the correct answer.

Providing proper feedback (should the answer be incorrect) increases the likelihood of learning (Anderson & Reiser, 1985).  This concept of immediate feedback was also found in Saljo’s (1979) summary of what is learning in the areas of memorization, acquiring skills and facts, and interpreting and understanding reality (or the need to re-interpret knowledge)

Gagne, Briggs & Wager (1988) propose several design principles for effective instructional design that are founded in behavioral learning theory.  These principles are contiguity, repetition, and feedback. 

Contiguity is the concept that the response should follow the stimulus without delay.  The longer the delay of the response to a learning stimulus the less is the likelihood of correct answers to future similar questions. 

The second principle of repetition states that practice strengthens learning and improves a learner’s retention.  Murray (1996) encourages a teaching style based on drill/rote learning and memorization.  Modules should be built with many exercises that are example driven.

The principle of feedback requires that instructors inform the learner if the answer was correct or incorrect.  If the answer is incorrect feedback may be designed to include a new path to solve the problem.  This new path could be a hint at the correct answer, a restatement of a prior fact, or even a new example that is less complicated (Hannafin & Peck, 1988).  In addition, feedback that the answer is correct is as important as feedback for incorrect answers.

The theory of cognitive learning offers a different perspective.  Cognitive theory studies how individuals gain information from the world, how that information is represented, how it is stored, and how it directs one's attention and behavior (Solso, 1984).  Gagne, Briggs and Wager (1988) also propose the incorporation of several learning concepts from the cognitive theorist for effective lesson planning.  These concepts are orientation and recall, intellectual skills, and individualism.

Orientation and recall is defined as a process where learning involves the syntheses of prior information that must be recalled to short term memory (Hannafin & Peck, 1988).  Similarly Brandt (1997) states that learners construct knowledge by making sense of experiences in terms of what is already known.  Learners transfer knowledge through experiences via mental models, which are used to assimilate new information into knowledge, and thus become expanded mental models. 

The concept of intellectual skill implies that learning is facilitated by the use of existing process or strategies.  Collins & Brown (1987) encourage the view that cognitive skills can be learned, much in the same way that crafts are learned from an expert in the field.  The craft apprentice begins by watching an expert in action and asking questions.  Then the students will incorporate this experience into their knowledge base and eventually they will become craftspersons themselves.  In a similar view, Ives (1994) believes that conceptual knowledge can be closely linked to concrete examples via multimedia that engage more than one sensory perception when the information is presented. 

The individualism principle states that learning may be more efficient when the instruction is adapted to the specific needs and profiles of individual learners (Hannafin & Peck, 1988).  Rakes (1996) and Brevik (1992) define resource-based learning as a key requirement; a student learns from his or her own interaction with a wide range of learning resources, rather than from classroom exposition.  They believe teachers need to become guides in the process of discovering learning, rather than functioning as the sole content experts.  Computer-based and Web-based learning modules can be customized to meet individual student needs.

The resource view of learning depicts a changing role for the instructor; from an expert dispensing knowledge to a resource and a guide.  Rakes (1996) envisions a change from traditional learning to one based on a multitude of resources being available to a student. Other concepts include a variety of sources being available to the learner, an emphasis on information being discovered versus pre-packaged in a linear manner and a stress on the learning process rather than the learning product.  Rakes (1996) provides a summary of the differences between traditional learning and resource based learning as shown in Table 1 and proposes that computer-based or Web-based tools can assist in the transformation from traditional to resource based learning theories.  Frasson & Aimeur (1996) also support the resource view in that the role for a teacher in a computer-based environment is to generate problems and demonstrate examples. 

Table 1

Traditional Versus Resource Based Learning Techniques

Traditional learning

Resource based

Teacher as expert model

Teacher as facilitator/guide

Textbook as primary source

Variety of sources/media

Facts as primary

Questions as primary

Information is packaged

Information is discovered

Emphasis on product

Emphasis on process

Assessment is quantitative

Assessment is qualitative/quantitative

The instructional design concepts shown in Table 1 consolidate the instructional design activities of Dear (1987), the events of instruction proposed by Gagne, Briggs & Wager (1988) and Gagne, Wager, & Rojas (1981), the design guidelines of Hannafin and Peck (1988) and the strategies of instructional design by Merrill (1997).

Figure 1.  Summary of Instructional Design Concepts for the Behavior, Cognitive and Resource Learning Theories

The learning principles shown in Figure 1 consolidate and enhance the instructional design models of the above-mentioned authors with additional design concepts. These design concepts take advantage of the Web's interactivity as well as the capability for student control and navigation through a learning module.  Additional principles include the changing role of instructors in Web-based training, the learner's control of the learning experience, and variation of learning styles.

Web-Design Success Factors

Similar to the success factors shown in Figure 1, which was developed by consolidating the findings of instructional design researchers, Web-based researchers have found additional factors affecting learning success.  Especially important is the concept of a non-linear approach to a lesson.  A non-linear approach is defined as the capability to move through a lesson plan with a variety of learning paths.  The user is presented alternative paths other than that of just clicking the "NEXT" button.  This non-linear approach permits the student to control the flow of the lesson to some degree (Molina, 1995).   

In the design phase, the overall flow and the degree of independence given to the    student are important.  The flow is truly independent in that the learner is given the navigation tools to skip or choose modules.  However, on the negative side of   independent navigation, students might avoid particular learning goals.  Garrison (1989) reports a mixture of independence as well as control where learners can choose their learning path, once evidence of competency has been shown in particular areas .

The impact of using a variety of media styles cannot be underestimated.  Ward and Lee (1995) report the average adult attention space is twenty minutes, therefore a combination of slides, overheads, audio, video, hands on exercises are vital in design considerations. While much of the earlier theory of learning was based on studies of infants, juveniles, and the intellectually impaired, Ward and Lee put forward their work on the basis of studies of adult learners, thereby adding to its importance.  

Spensley etal (1990), also stress the importance of variation in teaching.  The potential of an adaptive Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS) depends upon having a variety of presentation techniques for the learner.  Jonassen et al (1995) expand the concept of a variety of presentation styles.   They show that the computer provides the opportunity to develop problems for students that either replicate or are analogous to the kinds of real world problems faced by citizens, consumers, or business professionals.  They argue further that these problems provide challenging situations for students to work together to solve real problems as contrasted to the traditional classroom where the resource information may not be available.

Martin (1995) offers suggestions for the design of Web-based modules, which he believes, is basically navigation through a cluster of interlinked nodes. His suggestions may seem intuitive, but it is important that his work validates what others have surmised from anecdotal evidence.  The suggestions are:

1.      Provide consistent navigation aids, these aids (back, forward, glossary) should be found at the same location on every page.

2.      Maintain every major node less then five clicks away

3.      Make a limited use of graphics

4.      Exclude large quantities of on-line text

5.      Use templates to create each page to facilitate the process

6.      Make printed copy valuable and easy to print (implying that external links are minimal and nested links within a page are desired)      

Synthesis of the model

There is a need for a methodology and system to support educators, IS professionals and corporate trainers in the development of more effective tutorials.  This model should assist in building of an individual learning concept or one tutorial;  it is not intended to be a course management tool. 

Current authoring systems for individual tutorials (FrontPage, PowerPoint, Authorware, Director) support the HTML (HyperText Markup Language) component of building tutorials.  Course management authoring tools such as WebCT, BlackBoard, and TopClass facilitate the migration of learning materials to the Web, as well as the management of these materials on the Web.  These course management tools provide the capability for building effective pedagogy, but they do not automatically prompt the author for the concepts shown in Figure 1.  If the course developers know effective learning theory then they will build effective courseware, however course management tools do not assist in the development of instructional materials (Janicki and Liegle, 2000).

There are many tutorial-building efforts by independent IS professionals that incorporate the success factors detailed in the previous section, but all in all the IS professionals lack the expertise, time and guidance to implement them effectively (Murray, 1998).  In effect these are single use modules and the process of design starts over with each new learning module.

To help replace or supplement this single use model, a new model is proposed that could be used by many disciplines for the creation of Web-based learning tutorials.  Shown in Figure 2 the Computer Supported Learning System (CSLS) model merges the instructional design concepts shown in Figure 1 with the Web-Based concepts detailed earlier in this section. An authoring system could be developed to prompt the developer to build a Web-based learning model based on pedagogy.

Figure 2.  Computer Supported Learning System (CSLS) Model

Table 2 details the learning theory that each of the major components of the CSLS supports and promotes.  Not shown in the model is the management of the HTML coding process.  It is recognized that the CSLS should facilitate a consistent layout to the screens, incorporate help menus, and link to test taking routines in course management tools. 

Table 2

Pedagogy promoted via the Computer Supported Learning System

Model Concept (Automatic Prompting)

Learning Theory Supported

Definition of Learning Objectives

Behavior, Cognitive, Resource

Listing of Prerequisites


Variation of learning styles for lesson content
    Tell (provide narration)
    Show (provide examples)
    Do (create exercises)

Behavior, Cognitive, Resource, with interactivity of Web-Based capabilities

Testing and Feedback

Behavior with Web-Based capabilities

Control of the flow  by the learner (learner may select one or all of the presentation styles of the lesson material

Cognitive, Resource with Web-Based capabilities

A common interface and set of navigational features allowing the learner to focus on the learning objectives instead of learning and re-learning instructional interfaces

All would be managed by the system

The CSLS model incorporates the following learning and design concepts that combine the interactivity, tracking, multimedia and self-navigation features of CBT and Web-Based modules with effective pedagogy:  

1.      Gain user attention with clear and understandable designs, consistent navigation tools, and a feeling of a personalized session.

2.      Inform the learner of the objectives of the tutorial

3.      List any prerequisites that should be accomplished before executing this session.

4.      Maintain student interest/engagement through a variety of presentation styles (text, graphics, video, and audio).

5.      Provide feedback for learners through enhanced help menus, and the capability to ask questions.

6.      Adapt to the needs of individual students with more than one method to present a concept

7.      Strengthen learner performance through problem sets and projects.

8.      Provide feedback about performance to the learner and the instructor

9.      Assess performance through testing.

10.  Monitor and track progress for the instructor.

The key benefits to both the developer and learner in a Web-based environment are envisioned as:

1.      Learning pedagogy – follows accepted learning concepts.

2.      Design – automatically provides the author with screen images based on design concepts that have been shown to impact learning in a positive manner.

3.      Flexibility – provides the instructor the capability to offer many types of tutorial content (text, audio, video).

4.      Interactivity and self direction - where both the student and instructor may modify the path (non-linear approach) of learning.  Focuses the learner on the problem and steps to its solution, not just the ‘right answer’.

5.      Stakeholders - help the instructor build the models at  a reasonable amount of time and effort, as well as being easy for the learner to utilize.

6.      Testing and Feedback – provides the student self-evaluation techniques, and provides the author a means to incorporate feedback into the model.

Variation of Learning Styles

Initially, we propose the CSLS model support three variations of learning styles as shown in Table 2.  These variations are: narrative (tell), example (show), and exercise (do).  Learners have different preferences in the manner they learn best.  Some learners like to learn by reading a narrative of new information, as in reading a textbook or article.  Collins and Brown (1997) encourage a second view of learning style, that being the inclusion of examples.  They discuss this style of learning as similar to the way crafts are learned from an expert in the field.  In the real world, the craft apprentice begins by watching an expert in action and asking questions.  Further students may begin the learning process by watching an expert involved in a process or strategy.  Then the students will incorporate this experience into their knowledge base and eventually become the craftsperson themselves.  In a similar view, Ives and Jarvenpaa (1996) agrees that conceptual knowledge can be closely linked to concrete examples via the multidimensional nature of the World Wide Web.

A third view of learning is the doing of mini-quizzes or exercises. Schank (1998) is a proponent of doing.  He views the computer as an excellent device to get learners to do and Schank notes that this doing cannot be accomplished in a traditional classroom.  Leinder & Jarvenpaa (1993), Cole et al (1997) and Jonassen et al (1995) all agree and report that the computer provides the opportunity to provide learners with exercises similar to real world situations  

These three variations were chosen because of the ease of implementation.  Authoring tools can be built to assist the developer in the tell, show and do methods of learning.  These three variations also support learning theories from the cognitive, behavior and resource based learning styles as shown in Table 2.  From the learner viewpoint, the Web can support interactivity of quizzes, demonstrations of examples (such as a video) and tell (textbook and PowerPoint) content.


For many disciplines computer aided instruction has been demonstrated to be an improvement for effective learning due to its capability to be personalized to a learner's needs as well as time independence.  Computer assisted learning has evolved from a focus on drill to one of learning environments in which the student determines the sequence of what happens in the pursuit of learning. Some recent Web-based learning modules have an approach in helping the learner not just get the right answer but understand the path to that answer through self discovery and the taking advantage of the Web's resources and multi-media capability.  

This paper has detailed the development of a model that may be used as a guide in the creation of computer-based and Web-based learning tutorials.  Many researches have called for an increased pedagogical foundation in authoring tools for computerized aids to learning (Hamalainen et al., 1996 and Robin & McNeil, 1997) .  However the average faculty member in higher education lacks the background in educational theory (Murray, 1998 and Kearsley, 1998).  We propose that learning module developers may be aided in enhancing their instructional presentation through the use of increased learning theories in their development.

The methodology for the CSLS framework is based on recognized learning principles and provides a developer a guide to building more effective learning modules.  The model matches the characteristics of effective pedagogy with a method to implement these principles into an interactive learning medium.  It encourages the transfer of knowledge in a more stimulating and interesting manner; engages learners at their level of learning; provides for a variety of learning styles; and finally provides detailed assessments and feedback.  Research has shown that this pedagogy does not exist in the current authoring systems and course management systems. 

The next step in this research would be to develop a computerized authoring system based on the concepts in the model.  This computerized system should then be tested to measure the learning effectiveness and practicality of the model.


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          Suchman, J. (1962). The elementary school training program in scientific inquiry. Report to the U.S. Office of Education. Project Title VII. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

          Ward, E. and Lee, J. (1995). An instructors guide to distance learning. Training & Development, 49 (11), 40-44.

Internet Resources

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