What to look for in training materials.
How do you evalute training materials? The most important question to ask is whether the specifc training materials available meet your objectives. Do the materials cover the informantion you need to learn or teach? Are the materials efficient, saving time and money? Do the materials adjust to the needs of individual students? Do the materials provide "hands on" training, developing actual skills rather than just awareness? Can the training be translated into effectiveness on the job? Are the materials self motivating, encouraging those using them to stick to the task and learn? Are the materials self pacing, adusting to the user's learning speed?
Not all computer based training uses valid educational approaches. mistakes are being repeated in computer software. Most such failures come about because the material is not self motivating, hence boring.
For example, the paper based frame instruction of the 1960s was a failure. Yet much of today's computer based instruction uses the same boring and ineffective format: present a little information, test a little, and move on to the next frame.
From film and television, we have learned that one of the most boring formats is the "talking head," which requires you just to look at a picture of someone talking. Yet when amateurs create video training materials, talking heads predominate. Perhaps the worst example of talking heads is in the Thoughtware prorams. If a talking head is bad, why not make it even worse by doing a poor imitation and animating a talking head? That is just what Thoughtware did.
It is important to recodnize that human learning is a creative process. Children learn one of the most difficult and challenging skills, using their native language, before they are even old enough to go to school. They learn in many creative ways, starting at birth. Human interaction is a vital part of the learning process, not only for children learning to speak, but also for adults learning to speak, but also for adults learning job related skills. Computer training necessarily lacks this interaction. In some cases, particularly in the Thoughtware materials, this reduces its effectiveness.
Some instructional material is excessively cute. When a teacher succumbs to the temptation to show off, education suffers. Sometimes good instruction must draw a fine line between boredom and distracting gimmicks. Entertainment can add motivation and make some concepts unforgetable, but it is important to ask whether the entertainment value illustrates and aids retention of the material or just distracts.
There is a tension between systematic coverage of a topic and the freedom to experiment and be creative. In general, linear instruction, the most direct way to "cover" a subject, is boring. On the other hand, without structure, students may decide to concentrate on material that is interesting but of little value and never learn essential skills.
An excellent example of the tension between linear instruction and creativity is the constrast between the tutorial programs supplied with Lotus 1-2-3 and with Perfect Calc. Perfect Calc allows two display windows on the screen, and the tutorial is set up to put the lessons on the bottom half of the screen while you work problems and experiment on the top half of the screen. These tutorials are so good that there is little need for other training.
A less enjoyable and less effective approach is taken by Lotus Deleopment in their 1-2-3 tutorial disk. Lotus also creates a lesson window on the screen, with actual worksheet displays in another window, but the lesson is canned and linear. You can type only what you are told to type. If you try to be creative, possibly by changing the numbers in a spreadsheet example, all you get is an annoying beep as the program rejects your keystrokes. The Lotus tutorial gives a good overview of the program, but the lack of opportunity to experiment at appropriate points in the lessons makes it much harder to remember the material. I learned much better with Perfect Cal tutorial. Perfect Writer also comes with an excellent tutorial in the same format.
Most of the instructional materials described here are competent and cost effective. Even if you disregard travel time and non-instructional expenses, for the tuition cost of sending one manager to a one-day course in using Lotus 1-2-3, a company can buy an instructional package that can be used by a dozen managers.
A pet concern of mine is how effectively training materials use time. I have three full-time jobs, so I can't afford to waste time. In fact, I may use as many as six computers at the same time, so I can avoid waiting while one or more of them are formatting and copying disks, loading programs, or compiling and printing.
I am very intolerant of time wasting training programs. The Cdex VisiCal course on the Apple annoyed me because it takes three minutes to load the program, get through the titles and menus, enter your name, and get to a lesson. In addition, the course comes on three diks, and each one must be loaded separately. If you take each lesson separately, you will waste 45 minutes of your training time just waiting for the lesson to load.
Thoughtware is even worse. The program consist of many individual frames that are loaded as separate Basic programs. They use a long complicated menu framework to get to the training, so you might have to wait for ten programs to load before you even reach the current lesson. Their "talking heads" screens also require a lot of set up time for the graphics routines.
Although I have just stressed the amount of time that can be wasted by a training program, it is important to remember that for the most part they save time. When an employee needed to be trained in VisiCalc replication, it only took three minutes to locate and set up the same Cdex course I complained about above. The training was completed in half an hour. This does not begin to compare with the time it would take either to send someone to a training course or to prepare an equally effective demonstration. There was no time wasted for travel, expense documentation, meals or even non-essential parts of the training. The Cdex materials provided exact coverage of the specific training needed on a demand basis.
Another key element of the effective use of time is pacing. Mostr of the disk-based materials move to the next screen when you press an appropriate key. Like a book, where you turn the page, theses courses are self pacing. You control the speed. Cassette-based courses, like Fliptrack Learning Systems, are somewhat less flexible, if only because you must start, stop, and rewind the tape. But in general, when i did not make typing errors, I could keep up with the course without stopping the tape, and Id often found myself waiting for the tape to catch up with me. When I made a mistake, I had to rewind the tape a little. In computer software, support is vital. I encountered problems in several packages. Thoughtware identified and arranged for the replacement of a defective disk over a toll-free telephone line. Other companies lists user-paid phone numbers for support.
Make sure that you have the right hardware configuration to use a training package. Even the most compatible of the so-called "IBM compatible" computers can have problems. Even with IBM equipment, what type of monitor you have, whether or not you have a printer or graphics board, how much memory you have, and what DOS you are using can determine whether or not you can use a particular solftware program.
Software protection adds to compatibility problems. For example, IBM puts part of its Basi in ROM. The compatible computers put the same parts on disk. If a company writes its training materials in Basic, and leaves just enough memory on the disk for IBM's DOS and Basic, there is not enough room for anyone else's Basic. If the files are copy protected, you can't split the files between two disks to solve the problem.
Most training software comes from relatively new companies, and they are making mistakes. For example, the material on the Cdex Advanced Lotus 1-2-3 Course data disk will fit on a single sided eight-track disk. Yet they provide it on a double sided nine-track disk, making it unreadable on systems using either single sided drives or PC DOS 1.1.
In general, if you have a recent IBM PC with two double sided disk drives, a color graphics board, an RGB monitor plus a monochrome board and a monochrome monitor, an IBM Epson graphics printer, 256K of memory on the motherboard, no hard disk, no extra memory, and no function boards, and you have copies of PC DOS 1.1,2.0, and 2.1, most IBM PC software should run on your systems, as long as it was not intended for the IBM PC XT. If you have a different computer, you'd better check first.
There are some approaches that work very well on the computer. The computer can gives us an overview of the world, focus in on a process as a microscope does, personalize instruction, use visual analogy effectively, simulate an activity under user control, and provide dynamic graphics.
The overview is illustrated by Air Nav workshop. Like a god, the user can create his own worlds and then look down from above on the flight path of the aircraft and observe the corresponding readings on the instruments. It is even possible to move the plane sideways or backwards to examine the effects.
The microscopic approach is used by Songwriter and Trace 86. In Songwriter, you can dissect a piece of music and examine it one note at a time making any changes you desire. Trace 86 lets you do the same thing with an assembly language program. Both programs offer a great deal of detailed informaton that can be examined at the user's discretion.
The Sales Edge is a state-of-the-art demonstration of personalization of instruction. You answer a personalized questionnaire, then describe your client. The response of the program is then customized to the needs of both salesperson and customer.
Understanding is often enhanced by analogy. A computer can use a visual analogy. A computer can use a visual analogy to help a person learn an intellectual process. The Wordscope program uses this method extensively. For example, in one exercise, as you build a memo, you watch the construction of a skyscraper on the screen. Your progress is mirrored in the construction of the building.
Another effective visual process is graphing. The Thoughtware programs do a good job of presenting information in chart from. Bar graphs, pie charts, and other visual graphics illustrate relationship between pieces of information.
Probably the most uniquely effective computer technique for instruction is simulation. Most of the programs described under the computer literacy and application training sections simulate the action of the computer in response to user input. Air Nav Workshop goes further, simulating the response of aircraft instruments to a user manipulated environment.
The computer is also useful in relieving human beings of repeated calculations when they are needed to give an overview of a mathematical process. I cannot imagine an engineering student making many small changes to a structural stress problem, then manually recalculating all the equations to compare the effects. But that recalculation is done by the computer in the Visual Stress and Strain program, and it becomes easy for the student to observe the relationships.
After six weeks of intensive analysis of different approaches to computer based training, I have come to some firm conclusions. Most importantly, computers do not currently provide a rich enough environment to take a dominant role in education. We still need human interaction, physical models, tactile stimulation, and richer visuals than the computer can provide. But I am also convinced that we cannot ignore the special abilities of the computer described above. While the computer should not replace the teacher, it is at least as important as the blackboard in education.