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Branched Programming Gives Life to Outmoded Teaching Machines

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Although Ombudsman Educational Services' learning centers are frequently referred to as electronic one-room schoolhouses, they use little of the equipment and programs commonly found in most public-school computer labs.

The schools have an ample supply of Apple II computers, but often this is so only because the teaching machines they had been using became outmoded and were taken off the market.

Most of the equipment and programs used, such as a machine that projects text at a timed rate as a way of improving students' reading comprehension, have been available for more than a decade.

Software for most of the centers' courses has been developed in-house or adapted from a library of courses written for the AutoTutor, a teaching machine marketed during the 1960's and '70's by the Sargent-Welch Scientific Company.

These programs contain the unique feature called "branched programming,'' which is rarely available in modern educational software and which Ombudsman officials believe is "essential'' if computers are to be used successfully as teaching machines.

Most educational software employs "linear programming,'' which requires every student to follow the same route through the material being studied.

"Linear programs assume that, if a concept is sufficiently broken down, it will be taught successfully,'' said Norman Crowder, who developed both the conceptual and technical framework for branch programming in the 1950's. "Exercises in a linear program are simply there for practice.''

In a branching program, he explained, each student's answer is diagnosed and an incorrect answer will prompt the machine to present material to the student that explains his or her error.

"If a subject or a concept is worth teaching, it is worthwhile to test to see whether it was taught successfully,'' said Mr. Crowder, who currently heads the electronics department at Illinois Technical College in Chicago.

"If it was not taught successfully,'' he said, "it is worthwhile to take remedial action, and that, in a nutshell, is what branching programming is all about.''

Ombudsman officials say they frequently evaluate newly developed software, but that it rarely meets their requirement that concepts be taught without extensive intervention from a teacher.

"Nothing provides the same scope and sequence as the branched programs,'' James Boyle, president of Ombudsman, said. "With these programs, the computers can provide the instant evaluation necessary for truly individualized instruction.'' WS

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