Integrated Learning Systems
Integrated learning systems are packages of networked hardware and software used for education. Such systems provide instructional content as well as assessment and management tools. Conventionally, instruction is organized around specific objectives and the software embodies a mastery learning approach to instruction. Two examples of an integrated learning system are Computer Curriculum Corporation's SuccessMaker, which has several reading and writing applications, and the Waterford Early Reading Program, which focuses specifically on young readers.
Integrated learning systems feature programmed instruction for teacher and student. Their purpose is to direct and coach the student through the learning experience. By the early 1990s, about 20 percent of American elementary schools had installed integrated learning systems as a primary component of their overall curriculum (Becker & Hativa, 1994). Integrated learning systems also have been developed for use in high school, college, and adult populations (Bunderson & Faust, 1976).
Typically, integrated learning systems are part of a comprehensive educational system that a school purchases to integrate within its overall curriculum. The curricular goals for literacy may include teaching children skills in language-arts mechanics and phonics instruction. Yet integrated learning systems differ from off-the-shelf, drill-and-practice programs. In an integrated learning system program, each student studies at his or her level, because an adaptive testing algorithm places every student at a level appropriate for the instructional process. In a number of off-the-shelf, drill-and-practice programs, no adaptive testing occurs, and the student works at whatever "level" of the program he or she chooses.
More appropriately then, integrated learning systems may be understood, not as "drill-and-practice" programs but as "testing and practice" programs (Osin, 1996; Osin & Lesgold, 1996). Students work individually and at their own pace through a series of exercises that are designed to give them practice in a targeted skill. This work may appear to resemble activities that students do in off-the-shelf, drill-and-practice programs; however, two critical distinctions exist. First, integrated learning systems are more extensive in their scope of instruction. In other words, they present many more exercises, and the exercises follow scope-and-sequence patterns of instruction found in traditional textbooks. Second, integrated learning systems regulate students' progress. They track students' progress in completing the exercises. Students' varying degrees of success in completing the exercises determines which set of exercises will be delivered next. Students' work and progress also are summarized in a student file for teacher review. In the best appropriation of integrated learning systems, the teacher uses this information about class progress to augment offline instruction.
More recently, such supervised instruction delivered to students individually over a local area network (LAN) has been integrated with nonsupervised, computer-based learning activities such as word-processing, games, and programming languages. For some integrated learning systems, researchers have improved students' search processes and selection of the unsupervised activities by tracking students' progress in supervised activities and subsequently producing pointers to activities that would be appropriate to their level of learning (Osin, 1996; Osin & Lesgold, 1996).
Recent research efforts examining the effectiveness of integrated learning systems provide useful advice about the conditions necessary for successful integration. When not truly integrated within the curriculumfor example, when they are used as adjunct activities, or when teachers don't chart progress and use results to complement curricular effortsintegrated learning systems have no positive effect on student achievement or attitudes (VanDusen & Worthen, 1994). Some experts suggest that thorough implementation of an integrated learning system requires a minimum of 45 minutes and four lessons per week in a given subject area as well as high levels of teacher integration. Good teacher integration means that the teacher adjusts the classroom lesson to complement the lessons and the student's progress within the integrated learning system.
Research also indicates that students who participate in learning activities using integrated learning systems spend more time actively engaged in the learning tasks than their counterparts who are engaged in the same offline learning tasks in traditionally structured classrooms (Worthen, VanDusen, & Sailor, 1994). Interestingly, when pairs of students work cooperatively to complete exercises in an integrated learning system, they outperform their counterparts who use the system on an individual basis (Mevarech, 1994). A striking result comes from studying how integrated learning systems influence learning in the extremes of the distribution. High achievers and low achievers benefit more and significantly so, compared to midlevel achievers (Osin, Nesher, & Ram, 1994) although high-level achievers gain the most (Hativa, 1994). This effect may be due to the fact that most teachers address their instruction to the class average. Thus, note Osin, Nesher, and Ram (1994), "by matching instruction to every pupil's needs, the computer is providing a service that is not available in the regular classroom environment, to the pupils in the extremes of the distribution" (p. 63).
To conclude, integrated learning systems require a significant commitment of implementation expense, time, and effort. Researchers remain divided on their long-term value. Although these systems have been shown to teach a breadth of procedural skills (such as language arts mechanics), it is not clear that they teach depth of content or foster complex thinking skills required in debate or composition. Further, although advocates claim this self-paced form of instruction increases student motivation initially, many students soon lose their fascination with it (Healy, 1998).