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Instructional design principles for CAL: Asking the right questions

Leanne Kruger and Alison Gotts
Cairns TAFE College, Queensland
A large number of instructional design decisions need to be made during the design and production of a Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) package. Some of these decisions may be explicit but others can be implicit and the designer should consider possible underlying assumptions to make the most informed decisions. This paper explores some of the instructional design principles which should be considered during the development stages.. the nature of the knowledge to be taught; the pedagogy which supports the instructional strategies and the learning strategies to be selected; the instructional sequencing; the experiential validity; the value of errors; aspects of motivation; the degree of structure and learner control; the accommodation of individual differences; and the development of cooperative learning. The project Producing Literacy Materials to Meet the English needs of Remote Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and funded by the Department of Education, Employment and Training as part of the Australian Language and Literacy Policy is evaluated with hindsight, according to the principles outlined above.


Reeves (1992) asks how interactive instructional programs can use psychologies that promote human potential rather than "ignore or repress it". He points out that the common emphasised features of most interactive leaning systems are the media elements, while the deeper pedagogical capabilities of the systems are largely ignored. The Department for Remote Access Education and Training Projects (RATEP), which evolved from a Queensland Open Learning Centre Network initiative, is now operating at Cairns TAFE. This unit produces interactive multimedia learning materials and is staffed largely by people with an educational background who have seen a need for the pedagogical dimensions to be explored and refined into a consistent methodology for developing such materials. The RATEP team, while working on various projects are developing a sound educational philosophy which looks beyond the technology, in an attempt to improve the quality of design and implementation for learning.

This paper discusses and analyses the dimensions of interactive learning systems identified by Reeves (1992). In conclusion, a checklist of design questions relating to the DEET literacy project is developed which can be applied to future projects.

The DEET literacy project

The Queensland open learning Centre initiative was extended beyond the delivery of teacher education in 1992 when Cairns TAFE, through the Department for Remote Access Training and Education Projects undertook a project to produce literacy materials to meet the English needs of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

This project, part of the Australian Language and Literacy Policy, funded by DEET, focused on the production and trialling of interactive learning materials to teach literacy through the concentrated language encounter, underpinned by the concept of cultural relevance (Gotts 1992). Integrated curriculum materials, including computer assisted learning packages, video tapes and booklets were produced for five topics, in response to a needs analysis conducted at remote communities in northern Australia, including Bamaga and Mossman in north Queensland, Broome and Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia, and Numbulwar, Yirrkala and Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory.

Instructional design principles


What is the nature of the knowledge, underpinning material produced by RATEP? On examination it appears that some of RATEP's earlier material produced for CAL would be located towards the objectivist end of the continuum. In particular the modules such as Applied Maths, developed for the Teacher Education program was measured precisely with tests, and little student construction of knowledge took place. Also in Basic Study Skills, there was little opportunity for the students to create their own sentences and paragraphs based on knowledge contained in tutorials. Rather, a whole range of sentences were presented, with the students being asked to merely identify parts of speech. The number of activities were high, and there was no chance for the student to exit at any point if they had lost interest or motivation.

In the development of the computer assisted learning materials for the DEET literacy project, there was a conscious decision by the team of course writers to build on existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learning processes, thereby embracing the constructivist end of the continuum. The main learning characteristics identified by Harris (1985) were observation and imitation, personal trial and error, real life performance, mastery of context specific skills, and orientation to persons.

In interacting with the materials, it was important that learning would be more a construction of knowledge rather than an absorption of knowledge; that knowledge would be more dependent on what the students already knew and would be used in situations that had real life meaning for them. Such situations had already been identified during the needs analysis, and included medical and health issues, legal contexts, finance and loans, social security and purchasing goods.

Consequently for each of the identified contexts, CAL packages were integrated with video tapes and printed books in an attempt to provide real life contexts for the literacy skills to be learnt. Learners would be able to observe and imitate the language on the videotape; the CAL packages would enable learning through personal trial and error, and the use of examples coupled with immediate feedback would encourage mastery of the skills; and the use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait actors and voice overs would help the learner orient to persons with whom they were comfortable.

For the courseware to be based upon these principles, there had to be more to the program than just clicking to continue and choosing a number of textual alternatives. In the package Dealing With Social Security, the students are presented with interactions which check their knowledge of the common terms used on forms such as "next of kin", "marital status", etc. The next segment then presents a blank Social Security form where they have to enter their own personal details - information which can then be printed out and kept as a useful reference which clearly matches the terms against the correct information required.

During the trialling of the materials however, this more open ended approach did not work so successfully in the Language and Law package where students were presented with a video clip of a policeman. The policeman asks questions (Are you Sam Paulio?) and makes statements (You're under arrest; get in the back of the van). The students are asked "What would you do?" (in this situation). This proved too difficult to answer, perhaps too hypothetical, and there was confusion while some ignored the whole idea, and continued on with the next segment. Consequently, during the rewriting following trialling, this was altered to include an Aboriginal voice imitating the appropriate answer.

Pedagogical philosophy

Reeves (1992) summarises and categorises several pedagogical dimensions to be considered: A major goal of the packages was to create a rich learning environment, and present the students with real life, meaningful contexts. So particular instructional and learning strategies had to be selected to support the pedagogy already identified. A conscious strategy employed was the consistent use of voice over, throughout the five packages. The Remote Area Teacher Education Project had already shown that interactive multimedia has good potential for teaching literacy skills by using voice to read the instructions and give feedback. A voice has a personal quality that written feedback has missing. It is also able to provide feedback in the grey areas, where there is no absolute right or wrong answer but where one choice is better than another for certain reasons. In the packages created for the literacy project the written instructions and feedback are displayed at the same time, allowing the student to match the spoken with the written word, a further reinforcement for students with a low level of literacy skills. Furthermore in Buying a Dinghy, the voice is optional and the students have the choice of hearing do passage read out, or skipping the voice altogether.

The choice of voice was carefully considered but there was some dissension of opinion among course writers whether to use a Standard Australian speaking voice as a model, or whether to use a culturally familiar Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander voice. It was observed during trialling that the use of Torres Strait Islander voice overs had a great impact on the Torres Strait target audience, giving the message value and relevance. However, in the Language and Law package, an alternative of Aboriginal English translation was included during the questioning and courtroom scenes, but participants avoided this and during rewriting the option was eliminated.

A strategy which supports the use of voice throughout the packages is the experimentation with QuickTime video clips. The videotape previously set the context; video segments were then taken from the five contexts and integrated with the computer packages so that students had an opportunity to interact with the individual parts which made up the whole. These interactions included matching written words to the spoken word, selecting the appropriate answer to the question asked, demonstrating comprehension of the video segment by answering a series of questions with yes/no and true/false answers, and sorting a selection of video segments into the correct sequence.

During trialling, it seemed that the key motivator for students was the high level of interactivity of the packages - interactivity that required them to use problem solving techniques. The package Language and Healthy Foods was found to be too easy and boring for many of the students as interactions mainly asked them to click and drag items into a space, or click on textual features for more information. In contrast the crossword puzzles contained in Language and the Law proved to be very popular with some higher level students only wanting to attempt just the crossword section.

Instructional sequencing

Reeves (1992) points out that the reductionist view encompasses the idea that all components of the task be mastered independently before they can be assembled as a whole, whereas the constructivist view is that learners be put in a realistic context which requires trouble shooting. Scaffolding and coaching are introduced as needed by individual learners. Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989), further make the point that interactive learning systems can be designed to present a focal point or problem situation as an anchor for learners to construct knowledge. In the packages created for the DEET project, the videotape became this anchor, setting the context and purposefully designed to show events which were interesting, problem oriented and challenging.

The scaffolding and coaching are represented on CAL by the use of Help and Hint buttons which allow the students access to further teaching points before initial or second attempts are made to answer the questions. Further support is given via the Glossary buttons to look up unfamiliar words, the Go Back button which allow the student to review a section again, and a Replay button which enables the student to hear a voice repeated.

Experiential validity

Brown et al, (1989) point out that a major criticism of much of our current dominant pedagogical schemes is that they are too removed from the real world and too abstract, and that the way in which knowledge, skills and attitudes are initially learned plays an important role in the degree to which then abilities can be used in other contexts.

Courseware developed for the literacy program is based upon the principles that knowledge learned in a context of use is much more likely to be used in that context and others of a similar nature. Consequently Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. in the videotape, are shown interacting successfully in the specified contexts, modelling the literacy skills of speaking, listening, reading, writing and critical thinking. During the trialling many participants became very excited at recognising the actors from the video, on the computer screen.

They had followed "Sam" through his arrest, questioning, release on bail and appearance at court (Language and the Law) and now felt part of his world as they interacted with the package, solving problems and learning language in context. Furthermore, the situated learning presented in this package enables the learner to apply his knowledge to similar contexts. For example, during the watch house segment, "Sam" is released on bail. However, several options such as detained in custody, remanded to appear in court, etc, were also explained, enabling the learner to explore the option which nay have red meaning to him, in a similar situation.

Value of errors

Reeves (1992) describes the continuum incorporating the value of errors as ranging from errorless learning to learning from experience. RATEP's earlier CAL materials included a number of interactions that were mainly examples of errorless learning. These included the clicking and dragging of items which did not accept the student response if it was incorrect - the incorrect response would bounce back to its original position. Interactions also involved the learners inserting text, with only those keys that matched an acceptable form of spelling accepted. Often feedback provided simply stated "try again", which did not sufficiently explain to the students just why their response was not accepted.

During the development of the literacy materials some attempts were made to include examples which allowed students to make incorrect responses. In the package Dealing with Social Security, the students me shown a variety of scenarios, using QuickTime which result from a student's choice of response, with no judgement being made. However, true learning from experience, where choices are treated as an "error" from which valuable lessons can be learned, have not been explored. Observations made during the trialling process have prompted the team of RATEP to further explore the value of errors in learning, and ways in which this can be incorporated into future packages.

Aspects of motivation

Keller (1987) specifies that motivational aspects must be consciously designed into interactive learning systems rather than just making assumptions that the combination of music, voice, animation, video and a friendly interface is enough to automatically motivate the learner. For the literacy project an important focus is that of cultural relevance, and attempts are made to increase this intrinsically motivating aspect by using familiar names and places, using Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander actors within the video, emphasising communicative competence and using the holistic learning approach. During trialling of the package Buying a Dinghy at one community, the tutor supervising the trialling made the following comments.
One particularly appropriate comment was that it provided a "good example for them young people" when it came to know how to get a loan. Many Islander families buy cars and boats and do so with the assistance of loans through institutions such as banks. This means that the choice of area upon which to focus the package, and the skills highlighted in that area, is of real relevance when seeking to provide support for an indigenous group as they struggle with "kole man's ways" (Gotts, 1992).

Degree of structure and learner control

Fox and Pinfold (1992) advise that programs should (a) be kept as simple as possible so that students learn the content and only need to have a minimal understanding of the system and how to navigate it, (b) keep the navigation though the program simple and clear, (c) ensure flexibility so that students can interrupt, move forward or backwards or allow lecturers to prescribe certain sequences in a unit, (d) keep the amount of intensity of interaction between students and program materials as high as possible, and (c) try to promote user satisfaction so that students would want to return to the program.

Earlier CAL material developed by RATEP displayed a high level of structure, with quite tightly prescribed pathways demanding that the student work through the package in a particular sequence, with little opportunity to choose a starting point of their own. For example, Topic 1 had to be completed before Topic 2 could be accessed, and in some packages there was no way to jump out of a lock step sequence, once the student was in the program. The navigation system designed for the literacy project is refined from earlier systems and offers students a range of options within the package. Students are able to. select which sections of a topic they wish to investigate; exit the chosen section at any time; replay the last voice over; go back to the previous screen; print out any screen at any time; replay the video clip, and look up unfamiliar words in a glossary.

However, having made a choice and chosen a particular section, the students are then expected to work through and complete that section. This is a deliberate choice made by the designers, as the adoption of complete free choice may, as Reeves (1992) explains, end up with students becoming confused or losing track of what is going on. The title of the section currently in use forms a clear heading at the top of the screen to further reduce the feeling, of being "lost in hyperspace".

During trialling of the packages with the target audience - adult Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders from remote areas with little or no computer experience; participants were able to very quickly use the menus and buttons to focus on the sections with the most relevance to them, and in a short time were able to move around the package with ease and confidence. However experiments with navigation since the completion of the project have shown that a greater degree of flexibility is possible.

There is now the option, in newly developed packages for students to identify their progress within a section, and to move backwards and forwards throughout the material quickly and in smaller "chunks". In hindsight this would have proven a great motivator to the target group for the literacy project, particularly in the package Language and the Law, in which many participants wanted to access the crossword only, but were unable to do so without going through a whole section, beforehand.

Accommodation of individual differences

Reeves (1992) explains that the impact of individual differences is a major factor in the effectiveness of interactive learning systems. There is no guarantee that students will have the same prerequisite knowledge, motivation, experience, learning styles or hand eye coordination. During trialling of the packages the target group varied from participants with no experience with computers and very low literacy skills, to participants with a good knowledge of word processing and mouse control, and quite high literacy skills. It became evident that in fact the packages had catered in some implicit way towards accommodating these differences, although this had not been an identified goal.

For a group of teenage boys in Arnhem Land (Northern Territory), the package on Language and the Law motivated them enough to find out what happens when boys end up in the watch house. Although this group had very little English and had never used a mouse before they doggedly worked through the materials, using context clues to understand the language and enthusiasm for the new and exciting medium to complete the package. In contrast, a group of women with high literacy skills and familiarity with computers worked much more quickly and easily through the same package, deriving most of the challenge from tackling the crossword section.

Development of cooperative learning

Cooperative learning refers to those instructional methods in which students work together in small groups or pairs to accomplish shared goals, but as Reeves (1992) points out "interactive learning systems can be designed to thwart or promote cooperative learning". While the project did not have cooperative learning as an identified goal, it became a major outcome during trialling. One participant would be nominated by the group to drive the package, while two or three others would sit close by. Often they would rotate and share the role of the driver. The level of interaction between the learners was high, and interestingly enough the language used was often English. Much discussion of the correct response before attempting to answer took place and prompting and prodding of the user when the answer was clear to another group member. Overall there was great group enthusiasm when a correct response elicited positive feedback, reflecting the cultural value placed on cooperation, and sharing.

Guidelines for future projects

Following an examination of the instructional design principles of interactive learning systems, identified by Reeves (1992), and outlined in this paper as they relate to a particular project, RATEP has incorporated a checklist of design questions which can be applied to future projects.


Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-41.

Cameron, D. and Barratt, J. (1992). The new user of interactive multimedia: Can advance organisers help? In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 193-206. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/cameron.html

Clark, R. E. (1992). Media use in education. In M. C. Alkin (Ed), Encyclopedia of Educational Research (pp 805-814). New York: Macmillan.

Fox, R. and Pinfold, C. (1992). An instructional model for multimedia language learning: A case study. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 71-74. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/fox.html

Gotts, A. (1992). Interactive multimedia and literacy: A project for isolated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. To be published in Good Practice in Australian Adult Literacy and Basic Education. DEET.

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Harris, S. (1985). Constraints on effective use of language for learning in Aboriginal schools. Plenary Address to the Working Conference on Language in Education, Armidale.

Lang, M. (1993). The impact of a remote area teacher education program upon its students, tutors and lecturers: A professional development Odyssey. JCU, Townsville.

Milton, J. (1992). Using the computer to teach for understanding. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Information for Training and Education, University of Queensland, St Lucia, September.

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Reeves, T. (1992). Effective dimensions of interactive learning systems. Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Information for Training and Education, University of Queensland, September.


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Do the students get a chance to construct their own knowledge?|__|__|__|__|__|
Do the students have a chance to choose their own goals?|__|__|__|__|__|
Are the students able to think about and use their own experience?|__|__|__|__|__|
Do the students engage in problem solving?|__|__|__|__|__|
Do the students have opportunities to learn through trial and error?|__|__|__|__|__|
Are there opportunities for the students to observe and imitate language?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is feedback given that encourages mastery of skills?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is knowledge presented in a context of use?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is risk taking encouraged?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is the material culturally appropriate?|__|__|__|__|__|
Does the navigation system encourage learner control?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is the amount of interaction high to maintain interest and motivation?|__|__|__|__|__|
Has the material meaning for the learner?|__|__|__|__|__|
Does the material move from the familiar to the unfamiliar?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is the learner able to make decisions about which sections to study and which paths to follow?|__|__|__|__|__|
Does the material encourage cooperative learning?|__|__|__|__|__|
Do the interactions enable the students to learn from their errors?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is accommodation made for individual differences?|__|__|__|__|__|
Is the navigation flexible enough for students, so that they can move freely back and forth?|__|__|__|__|__|

Authors: Leanne Kruger and Alison Gotts
Cairns College of TAFE, PMB 1, Cairns, Qld 4870
Tel: 070 507 584 Fax: 070 312 972

Please cite as: Kruger, L. and Gotts, A. (1994). Instructional design principles for CAL: Asking the right questions. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 254-259. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/km/kruger.html

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