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With the ever increasing reliance on IT in education, how courseware and instructional mediums are designed is vital if technology in education is to be used and implemented successfully. The aim of this issue of CDTL Brief is to examine some of the issues surrounding Instructional Systems Design.

May 2002, Vol. 5 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Understanding Strategies of Authoring Computer Courseware
Mr Alfred Low
Educational Technologist, CDTL

For computer-based learning to be effective, it has to be designed and authored successfully. This essay aims to familiarise teachers with a few strategies of authoring courseware that will make learning meaningful and effective. The following courseware authoring strategies that one can adopt to create learning environments will be discussed: the Socratic approach (Keller, 1987, p. 176), Simulations/Games, the Computer-as-Pupil and the Intelligent Assistant (Keller, p. 3).

The Socratic Approach

This is an authoring method that develops a questioning approach similar to the dialectic approach used by the Greek philosopher, Socrates. By engaging students in a dialogue, the Socratic strategy seeks to enable students to see their own mistakes and misconception. The typical characteristics of Socratic-based courseware "to recognize and respond to specific types of student misconceptions" through engaging in students in a dialogue can be summarised into the following five rules (Keller, p. 183):

  • If the student commits an error of fact, the courseware corrects him/her.
  • If the student commits an error about something outside the current topic, the courseware does not give a detailed correction.
  • If the student chooses an over-generalisation or a non-specific option, the courseware offers counter-examples from a different perspective.
  • If the student gives an irrelevant answer, the courseware gives feedback on relevancy and offers counter-examples.
  • If a student jumps to a conclusion, the courseware emphasises logical reasoning skills.

Although these five rules can be programmed as essential parts of the courseware, it is not possible to guarantee the effectiveness of any one rule. However, all five rules do contribute towards containing and managing how each student thinks.

The Socratic method has been extended to teach causality to students. In doing so, the "basic strategy [has] remain[ed] Socratic, assuming that by learning about specific cases first, students could then generalise to others" (Keller, pp. 182—183). For example, a student, who is conversant with Java, an Object-Oriented-Programming (OOP) language, should be able to apply that knowledge in the learning of LINGO, another OOP language.


This method of authoring uses the computer to develop simulation models of an experimental or imaginary world designed for pedagogical purposes (Bork, 1981). Where simulations of real world systems are used in computer-based learning, the computer’s power to manage symbolic activity is harnessed to allow the learner to exercise real control over controlled circumstances and to practise certain skills (Crook, 1994). For example, in a virtual UN Security Council environment (symbolic activity), a student of international relations, by assuming the role of UN Secretary-General, can conduct negotiations (control) with other diplomats and enact strategies to counter international terrorism. Or in a virtual Accident and Emergency Department (symbolic activity), a medical student can adopt the role of a doctor and be challenged to make optimal treatment decisions (control) when faced with certain crisis.

Although simulations as described above may resemble recreational games that award points for correct answers or actions, they are instructional in nature and are not played for casual amusement. Instructional simulations pre-test the student, provide feedback during each simulation, post-test the student, generate a student record, and generally do not award points (Criswell, 1989). Such courseware that are able to capture a student’s choice of answers have an in-built repository of choice permutations. Simulations also require sets of complex algorithms that are able to assess and draw conclusions on each individual user’s performance profile.

The Computer-as-Pupil

This type of courseware aims to allow learners to construct knowledge and develop problem-solving skills as they interact with the computer. An example of this constructivist approach (Crook, 1994) to help learners acquire programming skills is the popular LOGO environment in which a robotic creature/computer graphic, such as a Turtle, is instructed to move around by typing commands into the computer, thereby drawing shapes, designs, and pictures (The Logo Foundation, 2000).

The Intelligent Assistant

This courseware authoring method aims to provide support as the learner interacts with the programme. One example of a software programme created based on this strategy is the Microsoft Office Assistant that appears as an animated miniature graphic and offers you guidance while you work with Microsoft Office.

According to Keller (pp. 187 & 197), when an intelligent assistant is built into a courseware, it monitors the learner’s progress and gives help when help is deemed to be needed as the learner engages with the programme. In this way, the learner’s thinking is challenged and alternatives are presented. By constantly confronting and forcing the learner to clarify his/her ideas, the intelligent assistant shifts the learner away from a passive mode towards becoming an active participant in the learning journey through machine/user conversation.

Although the intelligent assistant strategy may seem similar to the Socratic approach, there is a distinct difference between the two. The Socratic approach creates an environment of continuous dialogue; in contrast, the intelligent assistant strategy invokes dialogue when it is assumed it is needed.


Despite the large number of courseware authoring strategies available, there is no single correct or complete strategy that can address each and every instructional problem. As Keller notes, "courseware cannot directly find out from the student what it needs to know, and so instructional decisions must be based on partial and inferential knowledge" (p. 195). In addition, computer courseware cannot ascertain a student’s motivational level in the same degree that a human teacher can. Consequently before designing courseware, it is important that a thorough needs analysis be carried out first so as to determine which authoring strategy is the most appropriate for the job.


Bork, Alfred. (1981). Learning with Computers. Bedford, Mass, USA: Digital Equipment Corporation.

Criswell, Eleanor L. (1989). The Design of Computer-Based Instruction. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Crook, C. (1994). Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning. Chatham, Kent: Mackays.

Keller, Arnold. (1987). When Machines Teach: Designing Computer Courseware. New York: Harper & Row Publishes, Inc.

The Logo Foundation. (2000). ‘What is Logo?’. (Accessed: 15 January 2002).

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Inside this issue
e-Learning at Singapore Polytechnic: From Concept to Reality
Considerations for Web-Based Learning Design
Creating a Meaningful Learning Environment Using ICT
Understanding Strategies of Authoring Computer Courseware
Towards a Blended Design for e-Learning