Integrated Learning Systems: The Educational Engineer Meets Wayne’s World

By Douglas D. Noble

To paraphrase Alice in Wonderland, something very curious is going on.

Why is Paramount Communications, the company that brings you Wayne’s World and the Addams Family, Arsenio Hall and the New York Knicks, textbooks and theme parks, now pushing computerized instruction known as integrated learning systems?

Why is Jostens Inc., known mostly as a dealer of class rings and sports trophies, now the largest purveyor of such integrated learning systems?

One could argue that media giants such as Paramount are involved in computerized instructional systems as a matter of corporate diversification. But a look at such companies leads instead to the conclusion that it is a matter of consolidation.

Entertainment, textbooks, and computerized curricula are seen now as part of the multimedia system needed to compete in the emerging brave new world where movies, television shows, book publishing, computers, modems, faxes, and telephones all merge as part of one big information highway. It’s unclear if anyone really understands where this new information highway will lead. But one thing is clear: schools and education are a major pit stop.

At issue is not just who will control the instructional systems of the future, but what the educational assumptions are behind such systems. It’s important to understand that integrated learning systems hark back to the self-proclaimed educational engineers of the 1950s and their attempts to automate instruction by reducing education to a set of sequential skills that could be taught by computer. Such automated systems are designed to teach the student automatically, without teachers or other human interaction.

You may not yet have heard the term integrated learning system. Throughout the country, however, school districts are paying approximately $150,000 per system to buy these computer-based instruction packages. In return, the compa- nies promise increased student achievement on standardized tests.

Over 45% of the nation’s largest school districts own such systems. As Education Week noted in a Dec. 16, 1992, article: “The market for integrated learning systems seems to be entering a new, and far more lucrative, era.”

The two leading vendors of integrated learning systems are Jostens Learning Corporation, which owns over 60% of the market for integrated learning systems, and Computer Curriculum Corporation. Jostens Learning Corp. is a subsidiary of Jostens, Inc., which for over a century has traded in school symbols and images, from class rings to caps and gowns, from custom sportswear to yearbooks. Computer Curriculum Corporation is owned by Paramount, which in addition to producing movies and television is the world’s largest publisher of textbooks. (Education Alternatives Inc., the for-profit company which runs nine Baltimore schools, routinely touts its alliance with Computer Curriculum Corporation as one of the ways it will improve academic achievement. See Rethinking Schools, Vol. 7 #4.)

Integrated Learning Systems?

Opinion & Commentary

Integrated learning systems are designed to teach students skills. They are computer networks of about 30 computers, typically located in a “computer lab” where students go several hours a week. The integrated learning systems have individualized, self-paced instruction in reading, math, writing, and other subjects. The computerized program determines the level of each student in each subject, monitors student performance, and prescribes appropriate lessons. It also gives teachers ongoing updates on each student’s progress.

Historically, integrated learning systems have been used with Chapter One students for remedial “drill and practice.” But vendors of integrated learning systems are now targeting the entire student population, offering more sophisticated tutorial software and broader curricula.

Integrated learning systems are attractive to school districts for many reasons. At a time of intense pressure for school accountability and performance standards, sellers of integrated learning systems promise, even guarantee, results on standardized tests. Integrated learning systems also offer districts an easy approach to high-tech schooling, with one- stop shopping through a single vendor that ensures compat- ibility of school computers and consistent curriculum materials. The systems also provide financially strapped districts the appearance of efficient, effective instructional delivery without extra costs for staff salaries.

It is important to distinguish between integrated learning systems, which are designed to teach students, and computerized systems such as CD ROMs and databases, which provide information. The difference is similar to that between a teacher and a library. Integrated learning systems are computerized teaching. Databases are information retrieval systems providing access to information that in earlier eras was found in library reference materials such as encyclopedias.

Do They Work?

Many of the questions around integrated learning systems involve controversies about the nature of learning. Advocates of integrated learning systems tend to fall on the side that sees education as the acquisition of skills that can be measured on standardized tests. Even if one accepts that definition of education, the question must be asked: do such systems work?

Henry Jay Becker, a professor of education at the University of California-Irvine and formerly of Johns Hopkins University, is the foremost authority on the research on computer-based education. He has found that research on integrated learning systems has been done principally by the companies that sell integrated learning systems and is seriously flawed and biased. A study in 1990 by the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE), an independent research group, arrived at similar conclusions.

Becker concluded in a 1992 article in The Journal of Educational Computing Research that research on integrated learning systems is of such poor quality and contains such bias that it “provides too weak a platform for district purchasing decisions.” He found little consistency among evaluation results and only marginal gains in overall test scores — despite the companies’ claims of significant advances in test scores by students using the integrated learning systems.

Looking at the Computer Curriculum Corporation, for example, Becker found that “the effectiveness of CCC studies seems remarkably related to how they were publicized. CCC studies contained in reports from the vendor all show substantially positive effect sizes. Those obtained from independent sources … show modest or negligible results.”

The EPIE researchers, while noting that most students, teachers and administrators viewed integrated learning systems positively, said that “the majority of the systems just lock you into their prepackaged instructional programming.” They also noted that students can quickly become bored with the systems, and that the systems lead to a renewed dependence on standardized tests.

The EPIE study also found that because vendors of integrated learning systems typically assured districts that the computerized systems could be managed by lower-paid professionals, “staff training has been grossly neglected” and there is typically little coordination of the computer lab with the rest of school instruction and curriculum.

History of Automated Instruction

At the heart of integrated learning systems is the concept of automated instruction. Although the term “integrated learning system” was coined within the last decade, automated instructional systems have been around in the schools since the 1960s. These systems, in turn, were based on military training research dating back to World War II as continual upgrading of technology and turnover of instructional personnel began to jeopardize the administration of adequate and timely training.

By the late 1950s, military-funded experiments in programmed instruction, task analysis, behavioral objectives, teaching machines, and rudimentary computer-based training began to flow into civilian educational research. For the most part, the research was based on the work of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. (Under the behavioral theory of instruction, one uses reinforcements to train people to give the right response and to eliminate error.)

By the early 1960s, these systems engineers, military training psychologists, and other “educational engineers,” as they often called themselves, had begun to influence educational practice with their use of behavioral objectives, programmed instruction, and teaching machines.

The term “educational engineer” speaks to an approach in which there is a profound emphasis on skills and micro skills. Computerized instruction is used to provide instantaneous feedback to correct errors so that the person provides the “right” answer — regardless of whether they understand why or how they arrived at the “right” answer.

A look at the orientations of some educational engineers is instructive.

In a 1985 article, Victor Bunderson, the main scientist on the TICCIT System used by many community colleges, wrote of the need for a system to “gain knowledge of the position, direction, and velocity of each student within a curriculum.” He anticipated the day when “advances allow the field to develop … units of measurement [for knowledge, student effort, etc.] like that used in the physical sciences [for temperature, energy, etc.]”.

Patrick Suppes, a Stanford University professor who co-directed one of the first computerized learning systems for teaching math and reading in the early 1960s, wrote in 1978 that he was still seeking “a differential equation for the motion of students through the course,” which he called a “student trajectory.”

The Stanford project’s other co-director, Richard Atkinson, said he wanted to “engineer” reading instruction using control theory. “The system to be controlled,” he wrote in 1972, “was the human learner.”

Such was, and is, the mindset of the engineers of automated instruction.

It’s also instructive to look at the many interconnections among the players in integrated learning systems.

Bunderson, for example, did research on military training systems in the early 1980s for WICAT Systems, the leading military and commercial aviation trainer. In 1992, WICAT Systems was bought by Jostens Learning Corporation.

Interestingly, before it was bought by Jostens, WICAT merged briefly in the 1980s with the PLATO System owned by Control Data. In 1986 Control Data sold its PLATO-inspired educational research to John Golle, founder of Educational Alternatives Inc., the for-profit venture that is affiliated with Computer Curriculum Corporation. Suppes, meanwhile, founded Computer Curriculum Corporation and remains its principal shareholder.

Jostens, Computer Curriculum Corporation, PLATO, WICAT, Bunderson, Suppes, Golle — it’s a small world. Through many such historical intersections, the educational engineer’s hard-edged “ideology of autonomous instruction,” honed on military/industrial training, now lies at the heart of integrated learning systems. What’s changed are the sponsors.

Automated Instruction Today

The forays into automated instruction in the 1960s and 1970s fizzled. In the early 1960s, it was largely because the technology proved too rudimentary and the small-time vendors too unscrupulous. As a result, the teaching machines ended up in the closet. In the early 1970s, automated instruction focused on teaching disadvantaged students through individualized instructional systems. When federal education funds decreased, so did this wave of automated instruction.

But automated instruction is now back. This time, some of the country’s largest media/entertainment conglomerates are involved. And this is not by accident.

Paramount, owner of Computer Curriculum Corporation, has two main divisions: entertainment and publishing.

Paramount emphasizes collaboration between its entertainment and publishing areas, as multimedia technologies increasingly blur the differences between the two.

Just recently, Viacom, the producers of MTV and Nickelodeon, bid to merge with Paramount. QVC Network, which owns the cable programming company Liberty Media, is also trying to buy Paramount, backed by BellSouth Corporation. BellSouth’s interest is in building its multimedia base. BellSouth chairman John Clendenin said in early November that the potential QVC-Paramount merger offers a way “to capitalize on QVC’s strengths as we move into the multimedia world.” Viacom’s chairman explained the proposed merger in the WallStreetJournal this way: “We have put together the #1 software company in the world, a monster entertainment company.”

Software, entertainment, textbooks, curriculum, integrated learning systems — they are all the same to these people. Media giants owning instructional systems isn’t a matter of corporate diversification, but rather of consolidation.

Consider Jostens and its subsidiary Jostens Learning Corporation — with the subsidiary accounting for half the company’s sales. This vendor of class rings, sportswear, trophies, and yearbooks bills itself as a manufacturer and marketer of motivational and recognition products. Its mission, according to its literature, is to be “the facilitator in the development of people — recognizing, educating, and motivating them from preschool to retirement.” One analyst following the company asserts that “virtually everything Jostens does ties together” within this mission. For example, Jostens sells to large corporations its “integrated recognition system,” which gives employers the means “to measure performance and recognize employees for involvement in quality activities.”

From here it’s a small step to integrated learning systems in which, as Jostens proclaims “the software is designed to instill a positive attitude and confidence through liberal use of the student’s name and positive reinforcement.”

This hardly departs far from the behavioral reinforcement techniques used in the original computerized instructional systems, except that the technology is now more sophisticated and infused with multimedia entertainment. Jostens has bought the rights to Garfield and Disney characters for use in its integrated learning system, just as Paramount plans to use its own store of authors and movie characters in the software for Computer Curriculum Corp.

John Kernan, CEO of Jostens Learning Corp., said in a profile in the June 23, 1993, Business Week: “We have to be more engaging than Nintendo.”

Kernan speaks of Jostens Learning Corp. not as the number one company selling integrated learning systems, but as the number four basal textbook company. For him, integrated learning systems are “mixed-media basals” that will become “the next generation of textbooks.” He gives traditional print textbooks “possibly another decade” before they are replaced by the new multimedia reality.

This is hyperbole, but it is not idle talk. Already several states have included integrated learning systems software among their certified state textbook lists. And Jostens employs 20 full-time lobbyists to encourage state legislatures to further this trend.

At a time when local initiatives on curriculum reform and whole language alternatives to basal textbooks are among the few promising developments in education reform, the possibility of state-mandated integrated learning systems produced by multibillion dollar media giants is a chilling prospect. Is it really financially or technically feasible for teachers at a local school to develop alternatives to such agendas?

What It All Means

The flood of integrated learning systems into the nation’s schools is likely to reinforce an educational engineering agenda that focuses on automated skills training sweetened by sophisticated multimedia entertainment. Such systems will continue to be used by districts to cut costs by replacing teachers with paraprofessionals and machines. Such systems will also be used increasingly to monitor teacher and student performance on specified skills criteria. They will be used increasingly to shape and determine curricula and materials. And they will continue to be used to give teachers a break from an often unruly school day while appearing to provide the most effective instruction that money can buy.

The growth in integrated learning systems poses several potentially troubling developments for educators, such as:

  • There is little independent research that integrated learning systems deliver on their promises of significantly increased academic achievement.
  • The increased use of such systems will almost certainly lead to more reliance on standardized testing to measure achievement.
  • Individualized, computerized instruction tends be used as a substitute for children engaging in challenging discussion with other children and with teachers.
  • At a time when many educators argue for a more holistic approach to learning, integrated learning systems are likely to promote a separation of learning into isolated math, writing, and reading lessons.
  • Integrated learning systems tend to reduce education to skills and facts pre-programmed into the computer, leaving little role for reflection, imagination, discovery, and creativity in the educational process.
  • Within integrated learning systems, children are viewed as “things” which are taught to perform specified tasks rather than as human beings to be cultivated. Children are thus evaluated on what they lack, i.e. skills that the computer will teach them, with little recognition of strengths and potentials that cannot easily be measured by the computer.
  • Integrated learning systems emphasize children learning the “right” answer, at the expense of learning to ask questions about why something is the “right” answer. (As every teacher knows, sometimes one insightful question is better than twenty predictable answers.)
  • Integrated learning systems, given their control by multimedia conglomerates, seem sure to decrease local control over curriculum. Thus they may ultimately reduce, rather than broaden, the educational resources available to teachers.
  • Integrated learning systems — in which kids put on their headphones, hook into the computer, and tune out the rest of the class — are being used to pacify kids, thereby serving a disciplinary rather than an educational function.

Because the latest phase of automated instruction is relatively new, the extent of such developments is unknown. Also unknown is the extent to which such computer systems will be integrated into a broader curriculum approach based on classroom instruction rather than used as stand-alone instructional systems with classroom participation molded to fit into their guidelines. Becker and other critics of integrated learning systems recommend the former while conceding the continuing likelihood of the latter.

A year ago I spent a morning in a Jostens learning lab at a local public elementary school. As I walked around I was struck by how engaged the kids were by the screens in front of them, by the colors and shapes, and by the voice and music coming through their headsets. Their captivation seemed to be utterly independent of whether they were performing the tasks required by the lesson. Their captivation reminded me of something noted repeatedly by the first experimenters in computer-based training research 35 years ago. As researchers wrote at the time, the computer “trapped” the attention of their military subjects, “eliciting sustained performance from students with little independent motivation for the particular task posed.”

As I was leaving the lab, I observed with the teacher that the young children in the lab rarely misbehaved or bothered each other. The teacher smiled readily in agreement. “Yes,” she said, “and the earphones help a lot.”

I wondered as I left, whom were those earphones helping? The students or a teacher beleaguered by the noise and chaos of the classroom.

Douglas Noble is currently on a National Academy of Education Spencer Fellowship conducting research on corporate intervention in public education in the 1960s. He is the author of Classroom Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology and Public Education.