Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 9, Issue 2, 1995

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CAL and SuperCAL

Kevin Macken and Ken Randall
Staffordshire University Business School


The authors have coined the term SuperCAL to describe the form of Computer Aided Learning which they believe should dominate the late 1990s. It will be appropriate to the age of SuperJANET and the information SuperHighway, and will be familiar to the rapidly growing community of Internet users. Indeed it will look like the Internet, even if it has been accessed from a PC or Apple LAN.

The key feature of SuperCAL is the separation of text from interactions, and it is this which will give speed and low cost, and thus eventual dominance of the market.

The constituent divisions of Staffordshire University Business School have been publishing, using and evaluating CAL materials since 1973. During this period we have used BASIC, PASCAL, Asymetrix ToolBook and the WinEcon authoring system to produce programs for a variety of sponsors and publishers. We are particularly pleased with the quality of the work we have been able to produce with ToolBook and WinEcon as part of the TLTP Economics Consortium. Why are we now using an apparently simpler system driven by HTML files?

The background - our existing CAL strategy

Despite our commitment to the increased use of CAL we face two major problems: the lack of suitable software and the high cost of producing our own. We have identified five main factors which define our (cautious) CAL strategy and which we feel minimise the chances of wasting the resources committed:

  1. Hardware use only "mainstream" hardware, to ensure that any software written will have a large market
  2. Software use popular existing authoring systems to speed up production
  3. Style use a popular (Windows) style to prolong shelf-life
  4. Content concentrate on "mainstream" topics which feature on several cources in order to guarantee initial purchase
  5. Partners seek partners, such as commerical sponsors, publishers, and other CAL producers, in order to guarantee quality.

This kind of approach has lead us, over the last twenty years, to seek sponsorship wherever possible, to join the TLTP consortia in Economics and in Accounting, and to use ToolBook and WinEcon software materials for Study Skills, Enterprise Skills and Marketing.

The need for SuperCAL

Even adopting the above strategy, we still have problems with the last two strategic elements.

  1. Academic authors are an expensive resource which it has proved difficult to release from teaching and research. Moreover the multi-disciplinary (team) approach to designing interactions, involving academics and developers (or programmers) working toge ther has proved to be very time consuming.
  2. We also find that the communication and co-ordination costs of partnerships with other Universities are very high. The Economics Consortium which the authors have been part of, and helped to run, has produced a large voume of materials to a high st andard, but the high standards have taken almost as much resources as the production of the materials themselves.
A third problem which has always been with us is the high cost of adopting CAL materials if they are to contribute a significant part of the students' learning. Even if the University has the appropriate hardware, software and support staff, the academic staff need persuading that the course should be re-organised so that the CAL materials can make a necessary contribution. The reorganisation of the course is almost always costly.

The impact of the Internet

Most of the UK University staff are now aware of some of the potential of the Internet, and many have been impressed by using MOSAIC or Netscape to access World-Wide Web servers. Most universities now have several Web servers in development or in use.

The authors have recently proposed (TLTP Economics Consortium Internal Paper) that future economics software should be "published" via the Internet, and coined the term WebEcon to describe the rsulting product or service. This was partly to overcome the horrendous problem of managing the physical distribution of a large CAL package (such as WinEcon) but also to handle the problem of updates and new versions.


What has impressed the authors about Web servers in general and MOSAIC as a browser is its elegance, simplicity and power as a solution to almost all the problems which currently face CAL developers. We see the separation of the core HTML document from any of the other applications to which it can transfer teh user as the key to productivity. Most CAL applications are extremely sophisticated and their structure is not obvious to the user. It is the simplicity of the Internet structure which could be used to create a new kind of CAL (which we have termed SuperCAL) which would be as easy to authors and use as an HTML file. By separating text from interactions we get advantages in each problem area.

The advantages of separating Text and Interactions in SuperCAL

  1. Specification Academics can make the overall specification (the TEXT) quickly and authoritatively
  2. Protyping Developer/programmers can produce the core HTML file very quickly
  3. Development Standard interactions can be added first and custom interactions added as available
  4. Trialling The unit is "usable" from an early stage and thus can be trialled and improved iteratively
  5. Demarcation Clear initial division of academic and developer roles avoids unproductive lead time
  6. Content Subject to funding the academics assume responsibility for content and their contribution is clearly attributed
  7. Style is decided quickly and easily by:
    • (a) the HTML browser used
    • (b) the interaction tool(s) used
  8. Partnerships are now more productive as the style issues are partially decided and communication is easier via the Internet
  9. Hardware the hardware which the University would normally connect to the Internet for the target students is the obvious choice
  10. Software the software the author's University finds most efficient is the obvious choice for the interactions
  11. Publication via the Internet is relatively easy
  12. Project Management clear demarcation of the academic/developer roles and quicker "results" should make it easier

SuperCAL - the downside

There are, of course, still some drawbacks to the SuperCAL approach. For instance:

  1. It does not solve the problem of high costs (for academics) of adopting a new piece of CAL as a significant part of the course
  2. Existing CAL may be more attractive and/or user-friendly
  3. Intellectual and Fixed Capital are already committed to the existing approaches to CAL
  4. The text (core HTMLfile) may be boring/useless on its own ("only a complicated electronic handout")
  5. Interactions are hardware and software specific
  6. Most staff and students are not yet used to using the Internet
  7. Using the Internet may become more costly

However we are left with three major advantages which should ensure an expanding set of SuperCAL applications. SuperCAL's big advantages are

  1. Speed of production and publication
  2. Lower cost of production and publication
  3. The motivation to produce for the Internet.


Opinions and errors are our own but we acknowledge our debt to the ideas of: colleagues in the TLTP Economics Consortium; colleagues at Staffordshire University Business School, especially John Ramsay (who commented on an earlier draft); contributors to the UK ToolBook User Conference, September 1994 (especially Peter Ford, Ken Tait and Paolo Tosolini).

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