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A History of Interactive Education
Industrial education and training has been accomplished through many different means such as classroom instruction, self-study workbooks, videotape, and software. Software designed to teach or train workers without an instructor has been around since the early 1960s. Starting out on mainframe computers that could easily occupy entire rooms, technology today has advanced to the point where greater amounts of instruction can be delivered from a single CD-ROM (compact disc – Read Only Memory) on a small laptop personal computer (PC). With the proliferation of the Internet, we will only see these advancements increase and be made available to a greater proportion of our workforce. Interactive training, just as it has in the past, will continue to be fueled by the advancements made in both computer software and hardware technology.
Early CBT and Mainframes
In the early 1960s, most projects were highly experimental and were developed for a select few who wanted to experiment and had the money to do so. Most programs then being attempted, using methods indicated by research as supportive of the learning process, had never been done before. Everything, it seemed, was pushing the envelope or at the cutting edge of technology. The U.S. military and the Department of Defense (DOD) were the only ones with enough money and daring to attempt early computer-based training (CBT). Early evaluations of the few products implemented did in fact indicate that the new methods being applied were better and provided better results than most traditional training methods.
Much of the early CBT was accomplished on mainframe computers, like the U.S. Army's Plato courseware administered on large Cyber computers. Others such as WICAT, TICCIT, and Micro TICCIT used microcomputers with proprietary hardware and software to churn out turnkey, complete all-in-one hardware and software systems. Proprietary systems then and now give the courseware makers greater control of, and leverage over, their products. Customers, however, are always better off with open systems that allow for the combination and use of others' courseware and require less dependence on a single vendor.
Early CBT used text to deliver the message to the student, virtually no narration, few sound effects, and graphics so primitive that when they did appear, they were nothing more than images made from the lines used to make a box.
The real magic of this new CBT was its ability to harness the power of the computer. It had the ability to branch to sequences of content and to bring up immediate feedback to student actions. This new technology could provide immediate assistance and it could do it quickly, in response to the student's individual responses. No standard textbook could do that!
Shortly after CBT was making its debut, another technology started its experimental phase around early 1970. The interactive videodisc (IVD) was designed to take full advantage of the strengths of linear motion video while combining the interactivity of the computer. It began to “talk” to the student using narration and relegated the use of text to a secondary or supplemental role. Many trainers and educators debated the merits of reading text in order to learn versus hearing and seeing a presentation. With no clear conclusion reached, most agreed that training appeared more enjoyable from a mini-movie than from an online book.
While IVD was great for demonstrating and depicting the real world, it required costly hardware not generally found on most computers. CBT, on the other hand, used what came with the standard PC. IVD designs, although moderately interactive and containing video that was somewhat accessible by the user (indexed for starts and stops), was still full of lengthy video sequences that offered limited user control and, by and large, kept the user passive. For whatever reason, IVD products did not carry as many forms of interactivity as their CBT counterparts, electing instead to rely on the TV generation’s acceptance of motion video. IVD products for this reason were often built more around the tasks at hand than the traditional subject-centered approach adopted by most CBT.
CBT on the PC
With the arrival and availability of the PC around 1980, a larger percentage of the workforce began obtaining access to computer technology. As PCs began to spread to corporate desktops, individualized self-paced courseware began to emerge. Authoring tools, those specialized software programs that allow trainers and educators to create courseware, started coming onto the scene. Graphics began to get better, motion video with sound gradually became a reality, and audio - narration, music, and sound effects - started appearing.
Of course, developers had to worry about what kind of computer was on the desktop. Was it an IBM-compatible PC, or Apple 2e, 2c, or Macintosh? The operating system (OS) the computer used made all the difference in the world. Some even used UNIX. Because courseware designed for a PC did not run on an Apple or a UNIX workstation, dreams of inter-computer operability began to surface.
Instructional designers continued to apply learning theory and research to their custom CBT products. With the greater access that PCs provided over mainframes, a few designers tried instructional metaphors that differed from the commonly accepted parts of a textbook. But many produced “page turners” fearful of producing courseware that was too radically different from what people were used to or what they expected. Lectures, textbooks, and videotapes were all linear. So why then should CBT be any different? Many developers simply tried to make their own learning curve more palatable. With ratios of hours of development-per-hour of CBT instruction at 400:1, 600:1, and 1000:1, why risk even longer development time on an unproven design?
The Advent of Multimedia
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of us in the field began seeing a new buzzword, multimedia. With the advent of multimedia, more and more companies were employing CBT as a key part of their strategic training plan. Multimedia whisks in the use of new video and audio compression algorithms, a greater range of fonts, and breathtaking 2- and 3-D images available in many different file types at 2, 4, 8, 16, and 24 bit resolutions.
With faster and faster CPUs (Central Processing Units) came faster delivery of content and more responsive activities for the student. Faster chips meant faster processing for video and sound cards. Larger hard drive storage and faster data access time meant more responsive video, graphics, and interactivity. More sophisticated authoring tools and lower level languages, such as Visual Basic, with their add-on packages were making courseware easier and faster to develop. Ratios of hours of development-per-hour of CBT instruction came down to 300:1, 100:1 and 25:1.
Two other technologies bear mentioning when discussing the advent of multimedia. CD-ROM technology gave developers the huge storage space required for realistic, highly visual, and feature-rich multimedia courseware. The types of files and file structures required by multimedia to make it highly visual continue to take massive amounts of storage space. The days of delivering an interactive course on floppy disks have long since past. Another compact disc technology similar to the CD-ROM emerged on the scene. CD-I (compact disc interactive) did a superior job of handling video, but because of its proprietary hardware and software requirements, it never claimed a large enough market share to really make an impact. DVD (digital versatile disc), the current up-and-comer, is gaining momentum at a much slower pace than expected. Its claim to fame is that instead of 655 MB, it has up to 17 GB of storage space. That’s over 20 times the capacity of CD-ROMs.
Web Based Training (WBT)
At the end of the 1990s, many in the field of training turned their attention to the Internet. It promises to be the true distance learning delivery system about which everyone has dreamed. It will let anyone with a PC, Mac, or UNIX based computer take an education or training course from anywhere in the world with nothing more than their computer connected to the Internet. Gone are the days of worrying about whether a course will operate on one operating system or another, or one computer or the other.
For those who develop product, however, it has proven to have many shortcomings. For one, the advances in our use of video and audio have been constrained because of the lack of bandwidth. In addition, the size, quality, and resolution of the images we can use are limited. If we choose to disavow the bandwidth issue, then student-computer response time, a key factor that we have found affects computer delivered training, will slow to a crawl. Thus, regardless of how entertaining and interactive we make the training, the extreme delays and wait time encountered by the student will diminish the effectiveness and enjoyment associated with the learning.
The time for the Web will come soon enough. For the time being, trainers and educators who are constrained by bandwidth issues will continue to rely on rudimentary methods such as combining videotape with lecture to show and demonstrate hands-on or procedural tasks. Or they may shuffle between CD-ROM, video and Internet course exercises. As technological advances occur, and they are occurring every day, many of the factors discussed will dissipate. Soon the functionality of web training will be on a level playing field with other types of training, and the distributive nature of distance learning delivery systems will far surpass all the rest.
Many more articles in Training & Development in The CEO Refresher Archives