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Successful learning in vocational and basic education using CAL, CBE and CML

Christine Smith and Donald Strempel
Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE

The Gilles Plains Campus of Torrens Valley Institute of Training and Further Education (TAFE) has focused on integrating computer assisted learning into the Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy program for Adult Literacy and Basic Education (ALBE) students including persons unemployed, of Non English Speaking Background and with disabilities. The use of the multimedia Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System (PALS) was added to the various software in 1991. PALS has also been used for ALBE as part of highly successful DEET Special Intervention Program Courses. Now the Institute has added to its Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) and Computer Based Learning (CBL) a Computer Managed Learning (CML) system from Canada, the Pathfinder Learning System.

The Pathfinder Learning System (PLS) is resource based, competency based, and provides individualised instructional pathways for ALBE and vocational education requirements. The Pathfinder Learning System has been studied by Institute staff in varied centres in Canada and in the New Zealand site at Invercargill. A report will be presented of this first installation of the Pathfinder Learning System in Australia, of its customisation to meet accredited Australian curricula outcomes, and the addition of preferred Australian materials. Discussion will address the degree of effectiveness and suitability of the Pathfinder Learning System for use in achieving language literacy and numeracy competences within vocational education. Current and potential applications for this open system to address further course delivery needs in Australian vocational and other educational systems will be considered.

The Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE has an ethos which encompasses the ideas of open access education, of competency based, individually paced learning programs and of course provision being in flexible modes. In Preparatory Education at the Gilles Plains Campus the philosophy of the lecturers has been that adult basic education should be provided in ways which meet the needs of each individual student. The particular emphasis has been on individual progression - on working with the students to define their educational needs and goals and on facilitating through planned pathways the students' progression from where they are to where they need to be.

The Adult Literacy and Basic Education (ALBE) program at Gilles Plains Campus encompasses a range of students from those whose reading and writing skills level is very low through to students wishing to prepare for further study in vocational areas. The students come from various backgrounds so that lecturers cater for the needs of students from all the designated groups including women, people with physical and intellectual disabilities and people from a non English speaking background (NESB) or for whom English is a Second Language (ESL). Classes are small, around ten students in each class, and include adults learners of widely varied age and cultural and educational backgrounds. Students often attend as few as one or two sessions per week, however there has been a shift in the attendance patterns over the past two years with many students now preferring to attend a greater number of sessions and engage in a more intense learning program.

The curriculum used for provision of adult basic education has been the Adult Literacy Modules (South Australia), although involvement in the trial of new modules and the prospective accreditation of the Certificate in Preparatory Education (CPE) curriculum in mid 1994 means that there is now a shift toward the new curriculum which is written in competency based terms. By means of the new curriculum students will gain credit in modules and have documentation which supports their achievements as they move along their preferred pathway to further studies, employment or accomplishment of their personal literacy and numeracy goals.

Computers in adult basic education at the Gilles Plains Campus

Since 1984, computers have been used at Gilles Plains Campus to facilitate students' individualised and negotiated learning programs. Word processing has been used extensively for conference/process writing. The wide range of other programs used includes didactic, interactive programs, drills and simulation. As demonstrated by Fergusson and Strempel (1994), it has not been necessary to have expensive equipment available but rather a knowledge and keenness on the part of lecturers to introduce the medium, the programs and the editing process.

In 1991, as a result of research reports detailing the favourable results for academic upgrade achieved by students using the Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System (PALS) in America, an Australian trial was set up to investigate the potential educational benefits of using PALS in Australia. The joint investigation between the Adult Literacy Unit at Gilles Plains, Interactive Health Care Services and IBM Australia used PALS with two literacy classes, one particularly targeting persons for whom English is a Second Language. PALS is an interactive computer based instructional program which enables students to learn the phonemes or sounds used in English through the story and journal sections of the program. The major part of the course is spent conference/process writing on a word processor - PALS employs a 'writing to read' approach. The methodology defined by the author John Henry Martin has been adapted and materials developed by lecturers so that, since 1992, the PALS system has formed the basis of very successful DEET Special Intervention Literacy and Numeracy courses. The PALS courses have served as a springboard for students, providing them access to further studies in Adult Literacy, Adult Migrant English and vocational study and to employment. (For further details on the trial and information on the program, the methodologies used to promote learning in the courses and the use of PALS with intellectually and physically disabled persons, refer to the PALS section of the Bibliography.)

Having experienced the success of computer aided learning and of a computer based instructional tool like PALS, interest in computer technology and computer programs continued at Gilles Plains. Impetus was added to the inquiries by the fact that students exiting PALS courses are very keyed in to the use of computers and look for a continuation of the use of such technology in their study, so inquiries continued into what programs were available.

In 1992, Preparatory staff began investigating the potential of Computer Managed Learning programs for use with ALBE students and information was gathered on various packages including CCC and Plato. The Pathfinder Learning System stood out as unique. It had the potential to meet the course provision requirements of not only Preparatory Education, but also courses for any vocational area across the Institute provided the curriculum was written in competency based terms.

Computer managed learning - the Pathfinder Learning System

The Pathfinder Learning System (PLS) is a computer managed learning system on the IBM platform. The Pathfinder System was originally written for the Youth Employment Services (YES) Canada program and was intended to prepare people who had left school early for employment or re-entry to the education system. The Pathfinder Learning System (PLS) is being used with great success in over one hundred and thirty adult education centres throughout Canada, and is also in use in the United States of America, New Zealand, and now Australia.

PLS was written as a tool to make individual instruction practicable. Pathfinder by no means removes the need for instructors. Rather, it manages the testing, assignment setting, record keeping and reporting requirements of the course leaving the lecturers more available to support students and facilitate learning. Lecturers are able to assist individual students or small groups of students who are working on similar learning outcomes. The computer directs students to learning materials and testing suited to their individual reading skill level and course choices.

Pathfinder is, in essence, a huge relational data base which operates on a local area network (LAN). It is a modular system comprising the Management System and the Curriculum Modules. The management software drives the system and includes the testing and tracking facilities, learner information and curriculum information files. The Curriculum Modules contain core curriculum, banks of test questions and assignments. The curriculum modules which can be purchased with the system cover the areas of Reading/Writing, Maths, Social Studies, Science and Employment/Life Skills.

The curriculum is written in outcome or competency based terms and includes over 5000 learning outcomes through which students can be guided using mastery learning principles. An extensive range of multimedia resources in the form of print, video, audio tape and educational software materials are included with the system and it is to these materials that students are referenced for assignment work. Students spend a relatively small proportion of their instructional time, approximately 25%, actually accessing the Pathfinder Learning System or using software for learning.

As well as being enrolled in a course on the Pathfinder Learning System, students are placed on a path. A path is a sequence of learning outcomes. Three to five Pathfinder paths exist for each module and additional site specific paths can be created. Part of the initial consultative process between student and lecturers involves assessment of students' reading skill level and each material to which assignments are referenced is rated for reading difficulty. By this means Pathfinder facilitates students working only with materials appropriate to their individual reading skill level.

Learning objectives and outcomes, assignments, resources, testing materials and learning paths can all be altered by trained staff. Through design and input of entirely new courses, delivery, in open access mode, of any course written in competency based terms can be facilitated using Pathfinder. In short, Pathfinder is an 'open' learning system, an attractive attribute because of the potential to be customised to meet particular course needs, and because of the extent of the paths, materials and curriculum already included.

Pathfinder in New Zealand - Southland Polytechnic, Invercargill

Although the information which was available in Australia about the Pathfinder Learning System was very exciting. further investigation was needed. In October, 1993, Christine Smith, a lecturer in the DEET/PALS program at Gilles Plains, and Graeme Smith travelled to Invercargill in New Zealand and spent three and a half very intense days investigating the use of Pathfinder in the Adult Basic Education Unit at the Southland Polytechnic. The Invercargill site provided an opportunity to view the Pathfinder system in a medium sized institution which has a similar function, target population and funding base to the Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE and, particularly, to see how easily the Canadian program could be transferred to the educational setting of a country other than Canada.

Viewing Pathfinder at Southland Polytechnic was especially relevant to the Torrens Valley investigation as the Polytech is actively moving toward Competency Based Education (CBE). Students gain competence in industry specific skills through a series of projects, involvement in which encourages students to develop attributes such as the communication, problem solving and time management skills which will enable them to function well in the workplace.

The Adult Basic Education Learning Centre at Southland is the first of the open learning centres which are being established progressively throughout the Polytech to support delivery of Competency Based Education. The centre provides opportunities for clients to gain the literacy and numeracy skills which are seen as vital to clients in order for them to achieve their personal' educational and employment goals. Considerable importance is attached to the role of adult education in this area - clients are offered a second chance to acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Southland Polytech purchased the Pathfinder Learning System late in 1992, staff were trained early in 1993 and students have been using the system since March, 1993. The course modules purchased were Reading/Writing, Mathematics, Employment/Life and Science. The Adult Basic Education Learning Centre has eight networked terminals, two printers and furniture provision sufficient for thirty to thirty-five clients to be in the centre at one time. There were approximately 165 registered users at the time of the visit, 125 of whom were actively accessing the system, a number far greater than the target set by staff for that period of operation. Students registered on the system as at October, 1993 were from both full and part time courses within the Adult Basic Education area including the Newstart Courses (DEET funding equivalent), Special Needs (People with Physical Disabilities equivalent), Overseas Students Program (ESL students), Adult entry School Certificate preparation (Year 12 - final exam equivalent) and Literacy and Numeracy courses. Students enrolled in courses within other faculties were also able to gain access to Pathfinder in order to upgrade specific skills necessary for their course. The Pathfinder system within the Adult Basic Education Learning Centre was also being accessed by a considerable number of Maori (1st Nation) students.

The Invercargill experience of PLS

The feedback gained from the administrative staff, lecturing staff and students was consistently positive. Students felt empowered by the learning experience they had using the system. Lecturers and administrators found that the program greatly enhanced the ability to provide relevant, individualised instruction and keep record keeping time to a minimum. The students highlighted advantages including : Consistent with the comments of all administrative and lecturing staff was the view that Pathfinder is a very versatile tool not an answer in itself . The factor seen to be most vital to the success of the Learning Centre was the learning environment - "the quality of the human interface". The capacity of PLS to facilitate the provision of learning programs suited to students' needs and allow management of individually paced movement along these paths was a major benefit. However, both lecturers and students felt that it was very important for students to experience a supportive learning environment. Students are therefore members of their own particular learning group and also have regular, individual consultative sessions during which students review progress and set learning goals.

The experience of the New Zealand site showed that the range of materials as provided with the Pathfinder Learning System, although mainly Canadian and American in origin, allowed the system to be operate in a foreign setting. The Canadian rather than American origin of the system was seen as especially relevant in Mathematics and Science as the Canadians use the metric measurement system in common with New Zealand. Although the resources provided with the modules were seen to be useful and educationally sound, the staff at the Polytech expressed a wish to add materials which were directly relevant to their situation, inclusive of their student population and published in New Zealand. The fact that Pathfinder allows customisation to the needs of a site to be accomplished with relative ease was seen as a major factor in favour of PLS.

There are definite copyright and contractual obligations to the Pathfinder Learning Systems Corporation. Copyright provisions limit the copying and distribution of all Pathfinder documentation and contractual obligations require that all staff in the Pathfinder Centre must be Certificated Pathfinder Instructors. In October 1993, the staff at the New Zealand site were beginning to address how best to achieve full utilisation of the learning centre and the consequent implications for centre opening times and time tabling of lecturers' duty hours.

(For further details of the New Zealand site visit, refer to the items listed in the Pathfinder of the Bibliography)

Pathfinder - an investigative tour in Canada

In November 1993, Donald Strempel with David Hale visited eleven Pathfinder sites and the Pathfinder offices in Canada. An appreciation was gained of the present uses of Pathfinder and its potential uses in Australia. PLS is being successfully used on a variety of sites. Those appraised included adult learning centres, high schools, First Nation Community learning centres and learning centres situated in shopping malls. Pathfinder also supplies the academic upgrade in joint training programs contacted with the Canadian Government employment agency, the Employment and Immigration Commission. While PLS is exceptionally successful in regional high schools to capture the interest and maintain the effort of failing students or potential 'dropout' students, it is also used for upgrading of students' entry level scores enabling them to access a wider range of tertiary education courses. Pathfinder is also used in conjunction with Hydro and Forestry workplace courses, in assisting with distance education and even in mobile classrooms.

The province of British Colombia supports any educational institution providing education for students of any age until the students achieve Matriculation. The government pays approximately six to seven thousand dollars per annum to the educational institution in which the students enrol.

Pathfinder in Australia - Gilles Plains Campus, Torrens Valley Institute of TAFE

Late in 1993, Torrens Valley Institute purchased a twenty work station licence for the Pathfinder Learning System. The purchase included four of the curriculum modules Reading/Writing, Maths, Science and Employment/Life Skills. Delivery of the system occurred late in December 1993 and the not inconsiderable task of organising the accessioning of the materials through the Institute Resource Centre and readying of the new Pathfinder Learning Centre was completed in time for the Pathfinder Workshop in late January.

The main area in the Pathfinder Learning Centre at Gilles Plains Campus contains ten terminals, two printers, the resources, a photocopier and seating for approximately twenty students. As the usage of the centre increases the greater number of students will be accommodated in the adjacent room. Pathfinder access is gained through the Institute's network facilities and students also have available various applications including the word processors WordPerfect 5.1 and Word for DOS and Email.

The first group of students to have classes in the Pathfinder Learning Centre were the Intensive Certificate in Preparatory Education (CPE) group. The Adult Literacy Modules (South Australia) form the basis of the course but the students are participating in the trial of some of the modules from the new curriculum. The full time Intensive CPE course involves six sessions of two and a half hours per week including one session on computer skills and an additional five hours of personal study. Of the sixteen students in the course, ten are studying full time and the others are attending part time - three or four sessions per week.

In order to take advantage of the capacity of Pathfinder to support individual learning programs, the students were selected to encompass a wide range of reading skill and educational background. The students range in age from fifteen to fifty-five years and vary in educational background from a student who did not complete Year 9 to a student who has a degree in journalism from the Moscow University. Taking an approximate equivalence, the students' reading skill levels range from approximately Year 4 to Year 10 or 11. A number of the students are people for whom English is a Second Language, one student has a physical disability, one a special learning disability and another a hearing impairment. Four of the students are continuing study having just exited from the PALS class and one is a former PALS student returning to study after a two year interval. The three youngest students are still of high school age and have chosen to study at TAFE as they did not succeeded in the high school environment. Three students from last year's Intensive Adult Literacy Modules course have returned to continue upgrading their skills. One student attended part time literacy classes last year and another five students are entering adult education for the first time. Although a few students are studying for personal improvement, most are upgrading their language, literacy and numeracy skills in order to continue study in a vocational area.

Before being registered onto Pathfinder, the students were involved in an initial counselling session. During this session, the student's personal, study and employment goals were discussed and initial testing was carried out. In particular, reading skill was assessed on the basis of various measures including use of the Canadian Adult Achievement Test (CAAT). The students chose the courses in which they needed to study and in consultation with the lecturers defined the particular skill areas they wished to cover. Some of the ESL students opted to attend a Conversation Class each week in order to work on their oral English. All the students enrolled on the Reading/Writing course and most are working on at least one other course.

The Reading/Writing curriculum is written so that students are introduced to skills through reading and then apply the skills in writing activities. Apart from the Reading/Writing assignment work that the students are doing, each student is also undertaking a writing activity of their choice. Although some paths in the Reading/Writing module contain testing, students who have lower reading skill levels have been placed on Reading/Writing paths which do not involve testing.

The involvement of the students in the decision making process from the very beginning has encouraged the students to 'own' their learning program and has fostered their transition to being independent learners. Students are able to access PLS to generate assignments, update their course progress and generate, input and score tests. The students decide which of the assignments they will do and how long they will spend working on a particular outcome, when and where they will study and when they will attempt the post tests. Apart from the print outs PLS gives to students of their assignments and assessments, the students keep a log of their activities including information on how long they spend studying each learning outcome. The students are actively encouraged to give the lecturers feed back on how they are finding the materials and assignments. Regular ongoing individual consultation occurs and the lecturers are also available for interview on request.

The Pathfinder Learning System assists students to assess their own progress. This occurs at the levels of marking assignments and testing of learning outcomes. The answers for assignments are usually available and students are encouraged to find and use the answer keys. Pre and post test results also give students a measure of their progress and achievements. The students have particularly noted the positive effect of seeing test scores in Maths. The test score print outs allow students to see the exact areas in which they have difficulty and to benefit from the independent assessment of how well they are doing.

As students move along a path, their academic progress is automatically recorded in their learner files. The system directs the students to each progressive step in their learning path so that the students need not wait for their lecturer to set work or wait while another student gains mastery of an outcome. The students work on the assignments during their session and can also take photocopies of learning materials out of the centre for homework. Students move through the course content at their own rate.

Curriculum in Pathfinder is organised into groups of learning outcomes called objectives. When students' learning paths include testing, the students are assessed for competence in each learning outcome in an objective before assignment work is set. This testing is called the pre-test. When students achieve mastery of an objective, that is 80% or more, in a pre- test they are moved along the path to the pre-test for the next objective. When mastery of an objective is not gained, students are referred to a range of relevant assignment work on only those outcomes in which they did not gain the mastery. By this means students' prior knowledge is recognised and students do not study areas in which they are already competent.

Students may spend as much time as they wish on the assignment work, accessing as much lecturer and peer help as they need before moving on to work on the next outcome or sitting the post test. After working on assignment materials, students must demonstrate mastery of the learning objective in the post test. (This level can be varied by lecturers.)

The provision of individualised learning plans is greatly enhanced by the matching of the reading difficulty level of the materials used by students with their reading skill level. As the materials students use are at an appropriate reading level, the students are more able to understand the course materials, work independently and gain mastery of the skills. Students locate the resources indicated on their assignment print out, look at the materials suggested and decide which they will use. Students may choose to access materials best suited to their individual learning style.

Plans for the Pathfinder Learning System

Already lecturers from other vocational programs, trained in the use of Pathfinder, are piloting the use of Pathfinder in their vocational programs. In addition they are examining its potential to facilitate the provision of accredited courses in open access mode both internally and externally. Bridging Mathematics for vocational programs is being studied using Mathematics paths designed using Pathfinder. Individual students from the part time ALBE classes are accessing the system and lecturers are using the resources and search capabilities of PLS to assist with their lesson preparation.

The Pathfinder Learning System is also in use as one of the modes of delivery for accredited Literacy/ Numeracy curriculum under contract to the Commonwealth Employment Service.

By May 1994 more than sixty visitors have been impressed with the potential for Australian use of Pathfinder. Planning is under way to bring in students from other education providers on a fee for service basis. Torrens Valley Institute plans to pursue involvement in extending the use of the Pathfinder Learning System in Australia by referral and demonstration.


Students who work in Pathfinder Learning Centres are active participants in the learning process. They take an active role in the process of determining their learning path and assessing their own progress. The students work at their skill and reading levels and at their own pace and yet still have access to assistance as needed. Although their learning path is individual, the benefits of interaction with facilitators and peers, participation in discussion and being part of a learning group are also available.

Pathfinder assists in the provision of a learning environment where individual needs are met. Students' levels of personal motivation and ownership of the learning process are enhanced and they experience success. It remains, however, vital that the learning environment students experience involves the input of skilled lecturing staff.

Our experience of computer managed learning using the Pathfinder Learning System has been positive and the gains for students in terms of academic upgrade and personal confidence evident.

The comments of Hall are relevant ...

Although computerised instruction is not a panacea, it does hold great promise as one of many tools to achieve these [educational] goals. However, it is the attitude and skills of the people using the tools that will determine whether or not those goals are achieved. (Hall, 1988, p35)


Hall, M. (1988). The case for computerised instructional management. Educational Technology, June, pp31-34.


Campbell, C., Hale, D., Routledge, C. and Strempel, D. (1991). Reaching More Adult Reading and Language Students with an Interactive Instructional Program - PALS Torrens Valley Institute, Gilles Plains Campus. ACAL National Conference Paper.

Campbell, C., Smith C., Farrow K. and Morris, C. (1993). Evaluation Documentation for the Adult Literacy and Numeracy (PALS) Course. DEET funded Special Intervention Program at Torrens Valley Institute, Gilles Pains Campus.

Campbell, C. and Strempel, D. (Jan. 1994). Success through Technology in Adult Literacy and Basic Education Using the Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System (PALS) and the Pathfinder Learning System. ACET National Conference Paper.

Fergusson, S. and Strempel, U. (1994). Access for Persons with Disabilities: The use of Technology in the Literacy and Numeracy Classroom. ACAL National Conference Paper.

IBM (1989). Writing to Read and Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System Outcomes: The latest. ED317994. International Business Machines, New York.

Routledge, C. and Strempel D. (1991). Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System - Pilot Study Report. Gilles Plains College of TAFE.

Smith, C. (1992). ALM PALS, Torrens Valley Institute, Gilles Plains Campus.


Employment and Immigration Canada. The Stay in School Initiative: The Top Ten.

Hale, D. and Strempel, D. Pathfinder (1994). Learning System Teams with PALS (Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System), for Success in Literacy, Vocational and Basic Education APITITE Conference Paper.

Smith, C. (1993). Summary of the Report on the Pathfinder Learning System which is currently in use at the Southland Polytechnic, Invercargill, New Zealand. Torrens Valley Institute, Gilles Pains Campus.

Smith, C. (1993). The Pathfinder Learning System Report - Computer Management. Private paper available through the Torrens Valley Institute, Gilles Plains Campus.

Please cite as: Smith, C. and Strempel, D. (1994). Successful learning in vocational and basic education using CAL, CBE and CML. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 300-306. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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