BMCR 1995.02.11

1995.02.11, Reviews of CAI Software

Recently an undergraduate, in praising a CAI package, remarked how very much easier it was for her to remember something that she read on a computer screen. Pause for a moment to let this sink in. We who are university instructors do not commonly share this experience. For us, the more familiar formulation will be that seeing something on the printed page gives the great boost to recall and memorization. Indeed the flood of information scrolling past us on a computer screen has become a very symbol of what is ephemeral, evanescent, hard to attend, not the subject of close scrutiny. As an intellectual community, we have made the transition to computer literacy with unexpected grace, yet hardly any of us have grown up with computers. How could we, when significant ingress of computers into the home dates to the 1980s? Yet, even as we think ourselves comfortable within the electronic environment, we lose track, I think, of how our view of this environment differs from the view of the generation we are currently beginning to teach. For today’s freshmen, the Apple II was introduced not long after they were born, the IBM-PC when they were 5 years old, the Macintosh when they were not yet eight. Childhood learning at home and school was closely associated with Sesame Street, Nintendo, Commodore, Atari, and that darling of the schoolroom, the Apple II. The computer screen, for such a student, is significantly less alien, more warm and friendly, more normal as a means for the discovery and recall of information. There is therefore good reason to think that CAI may play an increasingly important role in language instruction, and good cause to think useful an overview of some of the CAI software currently available. What follows is the tangible product (or as tangible as one needs in an electronic world) of a group study of and meditation upon the use of computers in the teaching of Greek and Latin (one theme of a recent graduate course in “Classics and Computing” at the University of California, Irvine). The software here reviewed was selected according to the results of queries to the Classics-related e-lists and cognoscenti in the field. Though in a couple of cases the selection reflects the textbook interests of our local program, in general the software was selected more for reputed merit than on any other basis. We hope, therefore, to provide here a survey of some, at least, of the better software available today.

What is the state of computer-assisted instruction in 1994? To what extent does it adequately address the needs of our students? The answers to these questions must be mixed.

On the one hand, one notes a continuing reliance on very basic, and rather limited, drill programs (some of which are little more than recompilations of older materials). The drill function is not in and of itself to be contemned, since introductory courses in Latin and Greek typically focus upon exactly such elements of the language. And, as already noticed, the importance of drill within an electronic environment cannot be underestimated for today’s students. But some rather general shortcomings are so obvious and so readily remedied that it is hard to understand why they continue. The frequent inattention to the aesthetics of interface design is perhaps a minor point. More important will be the fact that much of the software shows a surprising inability to generate a variety of questions from one session to the next. In several cases, this problem could be solved by so simple an expedient as the addition of more exercises to the base set from which the program selects, so that the computer generates, say, a session of 10 exercises from a base set of 50 (rather than of 15!). Yet even more deplorable is the general inability of most programs to understand the most rudimentary synonyms in processing the user response. Our reviews are sprinkled with complaints on these sorts of inflexibility. It would seem, then, that we are still sadly far away from software which incorporates even mildly complex strategies for matching and retrieval, or which takes advantage of the enormous resources of memory and disk storage now available.

On the other hand, we do, here and there, see heartening signs of progress. Some of the more recent packages show laudable improvements in the user interface, in both design and function. Mastronarde’s Electronic Notebook, and in lesser part Wilken’s HyperGreek, Blackwell and Burian’s Gramma, and Neuburg’s JACT Greek, are noteworthy for incorporating at least most of the following: (1) visual appeal, (2) a well-developed network of on-line assistance, (3) easy movement among the various subsections of the data, (4) user customization, and (5) the use of sound. This last deserves additional comment. The importance of aural reinforcement in learning, especially in memorization, is well documented. Yet university instruction seldom lends itself to those monotonous yet indelible chants (“hic, haec, hoc”) so familiar to those of us lucky enough to have learned Latin or Greek at an early age. Though none of the current software takes the principle nearly far enough, the systematic inclusion of aural reinforcement in exercises involving paradigms, vocabulary, and the like is an exciting prospect. I suspect that the addition of aural reinforcement may well prove decisive in encouraging instructors of the classical languages to adopt more routinely “computer lab” hours in a way analogous to the use of language labs in the modern languages.

In some respects the most significant of the software here reviewed is the Transparent Language package, which, by means of elaborate help windows, allows even an elementary student to work his or her way through relatively large amounts of original text. There have been earlier efforts in this direction (I am personally familiar with early experiments in Latin by Jay David Bolter and in Latin and Greek by David W. Packard), but TL is the first to make the attempt on such a grand scale. ( TL offers dozens of texts in several different languages, including Latin, and, soon to come, Greek.) Such software, by radically facilitating the reading of original texts, offers opportunities in at least two directions. First, it could allow the instructor to introduce substantial readings at a much earlier stage in the elementary curriculum; and secondly, it could be used to encourage “rapid reading” among intermediate students. These seem important prospects in environments—typical these days—where most students have only two years of exposure to a language.

The increasing dominance of the electronic world is creating gradual but dramatic changes in how students are accustomed to learn, and it is within this context that we should try to assess the merits of computer-assisted instruction. We should think, that is, not so much of how such software might have helped us learn Greek or Latin (for we grew up in a different world), but how such software might help the students we instruct. For an earlier generation, computer-assisted drilling and the like helped students too undisciplined to work through flash cards or to write out paradigms. But today’s students, I suggest, are fundamentally different in their attitudes towards what constitutes a normal atmosphere for learning. For such students, computer-aided instruction may well be fundamental to their abilities to learn. For this reason we as instructors should be particularly aware of the electronic aids currently available, even where, as often, the current state of the software falls short of the ideal.